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Fox News debate moderators didn’t mention Trump for nearly an hour. It wasn’t an accident

Analysis by Oliver Darcy, CNN

(CNN) — If it wasn’t clear why the Republican Party selected Fox News to host the first pair of its presidential primary debates, perhaps it made a little more sense after watching the first two-hour melee Wednesday night.

The debate had all the hallmarks of the right-wing channel’s programming, with moderators Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum even choosing to kick off the night by playing a video of the viral conservative anthem “Rich Men North of Richmond” and then quizzing the field about the song.

“Governor [Ron] DeSantis, why is this song striking such a nerve in this country right now? What do you think it means?” MacCallum asked in the opening question of the evening.

That’s right. The first question wasn’t about former Republican President Donald Trump, indicted four times, about to face arraignment in Georgia in less than 24 hours. It wasn’t about the alarming situation developing out of Russia, where Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was aboard a plane downed near Moscow. It wasn’t about the devastation from the wildfires in Maui or the existential threat posed by A.I. or the broken health care system or the national debt or the opioid crisis or any one of the number of policy issues the broad swath of the public might be concerned about.

No, the first question was about a song that has rocketed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 list as a product of the culture wars. That is how Fox News chose to start the all-important debut Republican presidential debate.

That question set the tone for the evening, which largely resembled what one might expect from the channel’s dayside shows, with plenty of commercial breaks in tow. Cities were portrayed as decaying areas rife with crime and homelessness spurred by the pandemic. The notion the US is facing an “invasion” on the southern border was casually floated. And so on and so forth.

No, it wasn’t two hours of Sean Hannity delivering dishonest MAGA propaganda. But, broadly speaking, it also wasn’t two hours of hard-hitting moderating from a pair of anchors who aggressively put the candidates in uncomfortable positions and compelled them to stick to the facts — as annoying as it might be — and answer difficult questions for the public.

Yes, there were some important questions. But there was plenty of filler and a license for much of the night allowing the candidates to evade direct answers and sidestep the issues. It was simply what you’d expect from Fox News. And even when Baier and MacCallum confronted the candidates with some of their more strenuous questions, they themselves appeared to do so reluctantly.

Take the issue of Trump, a topic that went noticeably unaddressed for nearly the first hour of the debate. Baier and MacCallum didn’t force the candidates to grapple with the disgraced former president, who holds a commanding lead over the GOP field and continues to exert a firm grip over the Republican Party, until practically the second half. Then, after only about 10 minutes of addressing the “elephant not in the room,” as Baier put it, the moderators attempted to move the conversation along to another topic.

“As promised, we were going to spend a few questions on it. Let people say what they wanted to say,” MacCallum said, effectively uttering the quiet part aloud. “And now we indeed are moving on.”

It displayed for the world that pressing the candidates on the ugly state of affairs inside the Republican Party was a chore that Fox News simply did not wish to perform. The manner in which the moderators treated the whole affair was reminiscent of a parent forcing their child to eat a few bites of their broccoli before letting them dig into the quart of ice cream sitting in the freezer. They knew they couldn’t totally avoid the topic, so they worked to quickly check the box and move on.

Of course, it is clear why Fox News preferred to avoid the topic of Trump. He notably skipped the debate and actively tried to upstage it by participating in counter-programming with the network’s fired host, Tucker Carlson.

But, perhaps more importantly, the Fox News audience still very much adores Trump. Pitting Republicans against him doesn’t play well with the network’s fans. Certainly confronting the ugly reality of the January 6 insurrection and the mountain of lies that the former president told about the 2020 election doesn’t go over well either.

So, instead, Fox did what it does best, moving on from Trump controversies while still making time for a “lightning round” that included a question about UFOs. Suffice to say, the network has not forgotten the motto that guided it in the wake of the 2020 election: respect the audience.

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