- Associated Press - Thursday, July 5, 2018

NEW YORK — President Donald Trump’s campaign-style rallies have found a receptive audience at Fox News Channel, which unlike the other cable news networks often carries his speeches live and in their entirety.

Four times in the past few weeks, Fox has set aside its usual prime-time programming to air the president speaking live to supporters at events in South Carolina, Minnesota, North Dakota and West Virginia. The network also promised live coverage of a Trump rally Thursday in Montana, where Democratic Sen. Jon Tester faces a tough fight for re-election.

Critics say Fox is essentially giving the Republican president free, repeated access to his supporters in a midterm election year.

Fox counters that it is simply covering newsworthy events and that the criticism is absurd. The rallies have also been good for business.

CNN and MSNBC generally do not air the rallies live, and once were taunted on the air by Fox for that.

The programming choices represent a stark illustration of how the cable networks have positioned themselves during the Trump administration. The president gives an overwhelming percentage of his TV interviews to Fox personalities, prime-time host Sean Hannity is a close confidant and fierce defender, and the White House on Thursday announced the hiring of former Fox News executive Bill Shine as deputy chief of staff for communications.

Meanwhile, MSNBC is now typically second only to Fox News Channel in popularity for all cable networks with a prime-time lineup that appeals to anti-Trumpers, who would probably howl if Chris Hayes or Rachel Maddow were knocked off the air for a presidential rally.

Not counting Tuesday’s speech before a military group in West Virginia, Fox has aired Trump rally speeches virtually in their entirety six times, according to Media Matters, a liberal media watchdog. That amounted to six hours, 33 minutes of programming. Meanwhile, MSNBC aired one rally for about eight minutes, while CNN has shown none of them live.

The airtime on Fox has “enormous value” politically, said Steve Schmidt, an MSNBC contributor and former campaign manager for Sen. John McCain who recently renounced the Republican Party over his distaste for Trump. This week’s speech in West Virginia was on the home turf of Joe Manchin, another Democratic senator up for re-election this fall in a state with a heavy concentration of Trump supporters.

“I don’t say this lightly, but this is a network functioning as state television for the president of the United States,” Schmidt said.

While past presidents would often campaign for broad public support for their policies, Trump is most interested in keeping his base of supporters excited and inflamed, he said. Fox offers exposure to a large group of his fans.

Fox noted that two of the recent rallies came on the heels of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement and Trump’s executive order ending his policy of separating migrant children from their parents.

“The president makes news whenever he speaks, and in this nonstop news cycle, there are constant headlines for President Trump to react to,” Fox said in a statement.

During coverage of one rally, Fox aired an onscreen message that said, “Trump rally live only on Fox News, other networks ignore presidential rally.”

“It’s a bit odd to complain that this will give Trump an advantage,” said Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center. “If so, then all of (the networks) were Trump fans in 2015 and 2016. It’s also a bit odd to suggest he’s less newsworthy now that he’s president.”

Indeed, Trump appearances were catnip for cable news producers when he was a candidate. CNN chief executive Jeff Zucker said shortly before the 2016 election that his network made a mistake in airing too many of Trump’s campaign rallies in the early days of the campaign, largely because “you never knew what he would say.” MSNBC’s morning duo of Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, now outspoken Trump critics, lent him considerable airtime and credibility in the months before the 2016 primaries.

CNN and MSNBC would not make executives available for comment. Network representatives note that there is a difference between covering a speech and carrying it live. In several cases, clips from the rallies air in later news coverage.

Fox News is seeing what every network discovered during the campaign - that Trump draws eyeballs.

During the South Dakota, Minnesota and and North Dakota events, which pre-empted Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show, Trump’s audience was bigger than what Carlson alone drew for his own show in the days surrounding the rallies, the Nielsen company said. Trump’s average audience twice exceeded 3 million viewers, and Carlson didn’t hit that mark on his own.

Hannity already has the most popular program on cable, but on the night of the North Dakota rally - which took over the first 20 minutes of Hannity’s show - he averaged more than 4 million viewers. That was a bigger audience than Hannity reached on his own the previous week, Nielsen said.

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