It's one of the basics of journalism: "Report the story: Don't become the story."
Fox News, with its unprofessional handling of Donald Trump, has become the story.
Sure, Trump is a puffed-up jerk. Sure, Trump's threat to boycott the Thursday night debate unless Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly was removed as a moderator was an act of spite and weakness. Fox has every right, and indeed a journalistic obligation, to stand by Kelly and insist that she will participate as planned. If Trump decided that he couldn't handle her presence, that would be his decision.
But that's not exactly how it played out. After issuing his threat, Trump got on Twitter to ask followers their opinion about his course of action. That inspired the following statement from Fox News:
"We learned from a secret back channel that the Ayatollah and Putin both intend to treat Donald Trump unfairly when they meet with him if he becomes president — a nefarious source tells us that Trump has his own secret plan to replace the Cabinet with his Twitter followers to see if he should even go to those meetings.”
I admit I laughed, because it's kind of funny. However, it was also petty and unprofessional. It validated Trump's claim that the network is biased against him and really left him no choice but to carry out his boycott threat. It altered the course of presidential politics. With that statement -- which presumably had to be approved by someone pretty high up in the Fox chain of command -- Fox News went from an outlet covering the news to a very real participant in the news.
Of course, Trump being Trump, he too couldn't take the high road. As you may recall, the question that originally got Trump so angry at Kelly involved his habitual verbal misogyny, in which he has questioned the intelligence, looks and moral virtue of women who dare to challenge him. He continues to prove the question valid:
Neither party in this feud comes out ahead. It diminishes both of them. Trump's camp is spinning this as a decision by Fox, as part of the conservative establishment, to join the establishment counterattack on their candidate, much as National Review did. They're probably correct. But Fox News is also correct: Trump isn't bigger than the process, and if he can't handle tough questions from Kelly, his tough-guy persona is more schtick than reality.
As to how this plays out, I have no real idea. It's already splitting conservatives into those who support Trump and those who support Fox. As noted above, it's another indication that the conservative establishment is summoning its courage to try to block a Trump takeover of their movement. And it raises the bizarre possibility that we live in a world in which the Republican presidential nominee enters the general election campaign at war with the official Republican cable network.
It might also become the spark that pushes Trump into an independent campaign.
UPDATE: Gabe Sherman at New York magazine reports:
"As the war between Fox News and Donald Trump ratchets up, Roger Ailes is fighting off criticism from his senior executives over his handling of the crisis. According to one highly placed source, last night, Ailes sent out the now-famous statement mocking Trump as being scared to meet with the “Ayatollah” and “Putin” if he became president. “That was Roger 100 percent,” the source explained. “A lot of people on the second floor” — where top Fox executives work — “didn’t think it was a good idea....
In a further challenge to Ailes's power, Bill O'Reilly is scheduled to host Trump. Last night, Ailes directed Sean Hannity to cancel Trump's interview. O'Reilly's refusal to abide by a ban adds a new dynamic to the clash of egos. For O'Reilly, this is an opportunity to take back star power from Kelly. Sources say O'Reilly feels he made Kelly's career by promoting her on his show, and he's been furious that Kelly surpassed him in the ratings.”
That O'Reilly interview is scheduled for tonight.