NEW YORK (AP) — Is Fox News Channel overplaying its hand or skillfully playing to its brand in dealing with Donald Trump?
The GOP presidential front-runner has dropped out of Thursday night's Republican debate following an escalating public relations battle triggered in part by his call for Fox to dump Megyn Kelly as one of the moderators.
Is there a winner in this dispute? A loser?
"Donald Trump and (Fox Chairman) Roger Ailes are birds of a feather — they're both geniuses at garnering publicity by fomenting conflict," said Mark Feldstein, a veteran broadcast journalist and now a professor at the University of Maryland.
Trump believes he's largely responsible for the campaign debates' record ratings — 24 million people for Fox's Aug. 6 faceoff, for example. Thursday may undermine that theory. Or people may turn out for the sheer theater involved, wondering if Trump might make a surprise appearance.
His discontent with Kelly dates to her question about his attitude toward women at the Aug. 6 debate. Fox responded to Trump's tweeted request to dump Kelly by pointing out that a candidate doesn't get to choose his questioners, and Ailes personally backed Kelly with a strong statement of support.
Then Fox added a sharply worded mocking statement with no name attached: "We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet him if he becomes president." Fox also said Trump planned to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers.
The Putin statement was a tipping point and "clearly designed to incite," Trump's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, told radio host Laura Ingraham on Wednesday.
Neither Trump nor Ailes are known for backing down from fights, and Fox's pugnacious attitude was a key in its rise to becoming one of the top-rated networks on cable TV.
The wagons circled on Wednesday: Fox's Brit Hume tweeted a photo with Trump's face superimposed on a baby's, with the statement: "Megyn Kelly was mean to me! I want my binkey!"
Fox's public response contrasts with CNN's, after Trump said he wouldn't show up for that network's first debate last fall unless its profits from televising the exchange were donated to charity. Before CNN's second debate, Trump suggested a specific donation to veterans' groups. In both cases, CNN issued no statements in response (and made no donations), and Trump showed up.
While Fox was correct in defending its right to decide which journalists should question a candidate, Lee Kamlet, dean of the Quinnipiac University School of Communications in Connecticut, said the network's "snarky" press statements were a big mistake.
"I'm old school," Kamlet said. "I happen to think presidential campaigns are important. For a news outlet to belittle any candidate as Fox News did, in my view diminishes the process."
The Fox response also plays into Trump's hand, since his supporters love when he takes on institutions, Kamet said.
There's a certain irony in these two sides fighting. The liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America said that its researchers have found that Fox has covered Trump for two and a half times as long as any other candidate.
While Fox may suffer "a short-term loss in terms of the ratings for this particular debate, it's a long-term gain for Fox in terms of their respectability and credibility," Feldstein said.
One hint at another cause of the latest dispute came in a Fox statement issued late Tuesday, in which the network accused Lewandowski of a "terrorization" of Kelly. Fox said that in a conversation with one of its executives over the weekend, the Trump campaign manager noted that Kelly had a rough couple of days following the first debate and that he would hate to see that happen again.
Lewandowski, on MSNBC, called the characterization dishonest and said he hoped Fox would keep his discussions with one of its executives private.
Associated Press writer Jill Colvin contributed to this report.
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