NEW YORK (AP) — Fox News Channel says that Sen. Bernie Sanders will appear on a televised town hall on April 15, making him the first Democratic candidate to venture onto Fox for this type of event in the current presidential cycle.
It's an important booking for Fox, after the Democratic National Committee announced last month that it would not hold any of its presidential debates on the network. The committee said it was concerned about whether Fox could hold a fair and neutral event.
Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum will co-anchor the town hall, which will be held in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Scheduled for the day taxes are due, the forum will focus on the economy and jobs, Fox said on Wednesday.
It will air at 6:30 p.m. EDT. That avoids the prime-time hours where opinion shows hosted by Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham reign, and where Fox gets most of its viewers.
The Democratic National Committee says it stands by its decision not to put Democratic presidential hopefuls onstage together for a Fox event. But party leaders say that individual candidates are free to make their own decisions about media appearances. Fox, the network of choice for many fans of President Donald Trump, is routinely the most-watched cable network in the country.
"The DNC believes that we must reach all voters, including (the Fox) audience," said party spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa, who is among the handful of aides to party Chairman Tom Perez coordinating 2020 debate plans. "Candidates should do what they need to do in order to engage these voters directly."
Bill Sammon, Fox's senior Vice President and managing editor in Washington, said he believes the same logic should extend to the debates, and he hopes the DNC will reconsider its decision.
Sanders appeared in a Fox town hall during his 2016 primary campaign.
The Democratic socialist elected to the Senate from Vermont as an independent might seem like an ill fit for a Fox audience that regularly hears hosts and guests bash Democrats and "socialism" as fundamental threats. Yet Sanders, perhaps more than any of his primary rivals, might be able to use the network as a bridge to white working-class voters who might respond to his economic populism and broadsides against the establishment.
His decision was met with surprise and dismay among some liberals, many of whom let their opinions profanely be known online.
Carolyn Fiddler, political and communications strategist for the progressive website Daily Kos, called Sanders' decision to do another Fox town hall "unfortunate and dismaying" and said it's certain to upset many Daily Kos followers. The site earlier this year gathered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition that urged Perez not to select Fox News as a debate partner during the 2020 campaign.
"I don't know why he would lend his considerable presence to a network that routinely pushes sexist and racist tropes about progressives and his supporters," Fiddler said.
The liberal watchdogs Media Matters for America, which has urged advertisers to avoid Fox's opinionated shows, said the timing of Sanders' appearance is bad.
"If you want to go on Fox, fine," tweeted Angelo Carusone, Media Matters' president. "But wait until after the ad sales period is over. If you go on Fox between now and May, they will use your appearance to help neutralize all the advertiser blowback."
Fox had no direct response to the critics. But it has stressed the news chops of its journalists like Baier, Chris Wallace and Shepard Smith, and says it is making a point by scheduling the town hall to straddle news hours regularly hosted by Baier and MacCallum. Fox held its first-ever sales presentation to advertisers last month, where news was emphasized over opinion.
Sanders' decision may give cover to other Democrats who worry that courting Fox's large audience could alienate liberal fans.
Baier tweeted in response to Wednesday's news: "Looking forward to it. Others are in the works."
Town halls are attention-getters for cable networks and can draw big audiences. CNN has already held eight such events for the 2020 nomination fight and has five more scheduled. MSNBC has only held one town hall, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, but candidates have appeared for interviews on MSNBC programs.
Political writer Bill Barrow in Washington contributed to this report.