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Wednesday night's Republican presidential debate was a chance to project a new image to the American people.

For the eight candidates on stage, to be sure.

But also for Fox News, the network that held the event.

Fox's reputation, after all, was badly damaged by the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit, which the network settled for $787 million before it went to trial. But not before a trove of troubling texts and emails revealed the duplicity of Fox executives and hosts who indicated interest in, if not agreement with, the perspectives of political and legal supporters of former President Donald Trump, only to dismiss and often disparage their arguments in private.

Among Fox hosts and executives, a frequently repeated word — "respect" — appeared. But not urging respect of journalism or the noble pursuit of the truth, but as code for coddling their audience by presenting what it wants to hear.

In just one example, former Fox reporter Kristin Fisher was upbraided by her boss Bryan Boughton after she accurately covered a Rudy Giuliani news conference on Nov. 19, 2020. Told she needed to do a better job "respecting our audience," Fisher, who's now at CNN, said in a deposition that "I believed I was respecting our audience by telling them the truth."

Fisher was. Because really showing respect, of course, would be telling the audience not just what they want, but what they need, to hear. In the case of the debate, that would mean insisting the candidates tell viewers — soon to be voters — what they need to hear, too.

But all too often Fox reverted to "respect" in an audience-gratifying way, tilting and stilting debate setup questions in a manner that made the network's partisanship part of the narrative.

Take the opening moments, when the moderators framed the first question by invoking "Rich Men North of Richmond," the country-music hit that's become an anti-Washington anthem for many conservatives.

To be sure, using events to contextualize questions is legitimate. But consider the recent news narrative: On the very same day of the debate, several defendants in the upcoming Trump trial were arraigned, and on Thursday the former president's own mug shot was released; on the very same day as the debate, a Russian plane with mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin was downed by an alleged explosive, just days after the unintentional crash of a Russian lunar craft; on the very same day as the debate, leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa gathered in Johannesburg to consider adding other countries to the BRICS block in a bid to wall off Western influence, and on the very day of the debate, this New York Times headline summed a summer of climate calamity: "Severe Weather Ravaging Globe, and More Looms: Dangers of Warming."

So the choice of leading with a conservative country-music song, as well as other subsequent question presentations on "Bidenomics" and other issues, suggested political leanings the League of Women Voters would strive to avoid at the debates they organize.

Respect for potential primary and caucus voters would also have meant more equitable time for candidates to present their presidential policies and qualifications.

For instance, Arkansan Asa Hutchinson — a two-term governor, former U.S. representative, undersecretary of Homeland Security, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. attorney and chair of the Arkansas Republican Party — got 7:33 minutes to talk, while Vivek Ramaswamy, who has never ran for let alone held elected office, and who has bothered to vote in only two presidential elections, got 11:47.

Ramaswamy gamed and gained from a debate conceit that allows candidates whose names are invoked to rebut for 30 seconds (they often take much more time). Provoking fellow candidates, who seemed to perceive him as shallow and callow ("We don't need to bring in a rookie," said an animated Mike Pence), Ramaswamy dominated much of the debate (and got a shout-out from Trump himself on his Truth Social network, with the former president thanking the upstart candidate and crediting him with a "big WIN").

Trump could have thanked him in person, had he shown respect to the voters by showing up. So that left it up to the many MAGA supporters on hand who booed every time a negative question or response about the former president's four indictments were invoked. While not a heckler's veto, by design it distracted and detracted from what should have been a fundamental purpose of the debate: getting candidates' specific answers to hard questions about allegations Trump faces in four impending trials. As it was, "the elephant not in the room," as co-moderator Bret Baier termed it, was not a topic until an hour into the debate, when Baier said they would take a "brief moment" to discuss it.

Trump was still heard on X (formerly Twitter) on Wednesday night, however, as he tried to truncate the event by being interviewed by Tucker Carlson, the former Fox host jettisoned just after the settlement with Dominion.

"Do I sit there [at the debate] for an hour or two hours, whatever it's going to be, and get harassed by people who shouldn't even be running for president?" Trump rhetorically asked Carlson. "Should I be doing that at a network that isn't particularly friendly to me?"

Actually, Fox was too solicitous of Trump, which is why it had to settle with Dominion and faces another, potentially even costlier, lawsuit from Smartmatic, an elections technology company that claims it was defamed on Fox by comments over the 2020 election.

The journalistic and legal liability from the Dominion and Smartmatic suits hasn't seemed to wise up the network's two top executives, however, who dined with Trump in New Jersey just hours after his third indictment earlier this month, trying to convince him to attend the debate. Such a play for ratings isn't what news network leaders should be doing; rather, they should heed by the rules set forth by the Republican National Committee and welcome — and treat — every candidate who qualifies equally. Trying to backchannel the front-runner to appear might rightly raise questions about what promises were offered to Trump, who through the meeting alone received treatment not offered to his Republican rivals.

Fox has been savvy in the marketplace of ideas (let alone of advertising) by appealing to conservatives. But the nature of conserving something means to protect it, which Fox should do with its reputation and especially with our democracy. Debates shouldn't be extensions of prime-time opining as done from the right on Fox or the left on MSNBC; rather, they should be as neutral and professional as possible, which would truly be showing respect.