Kudos to Fox News
Forget the partisan diatribes of commentators like Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. In the hours after election night, the journalists at Fox News did what was needed. Center director Jeffrey Cole explains.
By Jeffrey Cole
I cannot believe I am saying this, but kudos to Fox News for its role as a responsible news organization during the 2020 election of Joe Biden as President of the United States.
Credit where credit is due: Fox’s reporting was fair (It’s a very different story with its on-air commentators). Fox understood its role as the only major source of information its loyal audience trusted, and that its reporting in the moments and days after the election could inflame or contain its base’s worst impulses. While no one has the right to such power, Fox News had the choice to stand as an impediment to democracy or as a facilitator for the peaceful transition of power. For choosing the latter, Fox deserves our thanks.
Many of my friends and colleagues in the media and at the USC Annenberg School would surely argue that Fox News does not deserve any credit—and especially thanks—for merely doing what all the other professional news outlets do by reflex. Those other news organizations’ reporters and anchors do not require special instructions on how to cover stories that might disappoint or infuriate its viewers.
While all the above is true, any other behavior could have been dangerous to property and lives as well as our faith in democracy and the future.
Although almost all the major polls incorrectly showed Biden leading by as much as 14 points and predicted an easy win, that news did not filter down to the President’s base in Trump World. They were not yet “tired of winning,” thought their leader was unassailable, and that he would again rise from bad polls to slay another electoral dragon. The Fox News watchers fully expected a Trump victory: anything else was unimaginable.
Election night confusion
By the end of Tuesday night, the returns offered no clear results—except that neither a red nor blue wave had swept America. Trump was ahead in much of the famous 2016 Blue Wall, and democratic gains in Florida, Georgia, and Texas had not materialized. The only glimmers of hope for the Democrats were the size of turnout and that few of the mailed-in ballots had been counted.
From the Democratic point of view, the nightmare election scenario was for Trump to be ahead Tuesday night in the ballots that had been cast in person, that he would prematurely declare himself the winner, and that he would then call for no further counting of votes. That is exactly what happened.
Frustrated that the election had not been called for him and that his election-night lead might evaporate, Trump stormed into the East Room of the White House after 2 am on Wednesday. With zero evidence, he declared that the election was being stolen and the counting must stop. (Hypocritically, the next day his supporters went to one of the only undecided states where Biden was ahead and demanded: “The counting must continue!”) Then, in defiance of any norm or principal of American democracy, Trump lied: “We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.”
By amplifying Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories of democratic fraud, Fox News’ reporting could have exploded his base’s temper and sent armed supporters into the streets where citizens could have been killed. Fox News didn’t. Although some of the people its reporters interviewed parroted Trump’s stolen election theme, Fox News pushed back, citing the lack of evidence.
When it comes to calling elections state-by-state leading to a national result, Fox News has always been in step with the other networks. The ultimate judge on election issues at each of the major news organizations (ABC, AP, CBS, CNN, NBC, and Fox News) is the decision desk. For many years, Arnon Miskin has run that desk at Fox News.
Credit where credit is due: Fox’s reporting was fair (It’s a very different story with its on-air commentators.). Fox understood its role as the only major source of information its loyal audience trusted, and that its reporting in the moments and days after the election could inflame or contain its base’s worst impulses. While no one has the right to such power, Fox News had the choice to stand as an impediment to democracy or as a facilitator for the peaceful transition of power. For choosing the latter, Fox deserves our thanks.
Miskin is a scientist (and a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016). He first rose to public awareness (decision desk heads typically are anonymous) in 2012 when Karl Rove challenged Fox News’ calling the election for Obama. Famously, Megyn Kelly took the live cameras down the hall to Miskin’s office, where he explained his correct call.
Drama at the decision desk
Last week, Miskin ran the Fox News decision desk without interference. Tuesday, Fox was the first network to put Arizona in Biden’s win column. Four days later, only AP had joined Fox News in such an early call. The White House was furious at the Fox News declaration. Both Trump himself and Jared Kushner phoned News Corp CEO Rupert Murdoch to demand that he reverse Miskin’s decision.
Trump didn’t care a whit about demographics, science, or ballot counting. To him, Fox News could only show its loyalty by calling the election his way regardless of the truth. Murdoch refused to intervene. Miskin’s decision stood.
No matter what Trump claimed about being cheated, when his supporters watched Fox News, they saw a fair interpretation of the results. They also saw reporters who made it clear there was no evidence for Trump’s conspiratorial charges. Fox News held the line and provided no accelerant to start a fire. Once again, Fox shouldn’t need to be praised for doing what every other professional news organization did, but the damage to the country and the president-elect could have been unthinkable.
In 2016, Trump was elected believing that Fox News was his personal news channel. He expected Fox to be “All Trump, All the time” and helped that along by being constantly present on its shows. He was also the most faithful Fox News viewer and could quote almost all the Fox News personalities (who represented the commentary not the news part of the channel).
White House staffers revealed anonymously that Trump spoke almost every night to Sean Hannity, who some saw as the “real” White House chief of staff. Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson fueled this love affair by supporting all his policies, explaining away the president’s worse impulses, and appearing at his rallies.
At the same time, Trump was growing disenchanted with the news reporting on the channel. How could Fox be “All Trump” if Democrats were covered on the news and occasionally invited to appear? Fox News polling, run as impartially as the decision desk, consistently angered Trump for not validating his view of reality. And he was confused and then angry when Fox News journalists, such as Chris Wallace, interviewed him with the same rigor and fact checking any channel would use to interview any of the candidates. From Trump’s perspective, Fox News was being disloyal, and he never stopped talking about it.
But Trump needed Fox News: it built a cocoon around him and fed him oxygen. And Fox News needed Trump. He earned the network billions of dollars and the highest ratings of any news channel in America.
What’s next for Fox News?
Perhaps Murdoch can see the writing on the wall, realizes the Trump Era is coming to a close, and that he needs to move Fox News into the next era. In truth, Fox News is more comfortable as the opposition to the Democrats in power than as brain-dead sycophants to Trump. It’s also possible that Murdoch has tired of Trump and his lack of response to the Coronavirus. (At 89, Murdoch is one of the most vulnerable).
Not all has changed in Fox Land. The personalities do continue to stoke the stolen election conspiracies without evidence. An early policy that leaked was that Joe Biden was not to be referred to as the “President Elect.” By Saturday afternoon, that policy had changed and Fox News referred to Mr. Biden properly.
Fox News reporters (that is, not the commentators) gave no credence to the stolen election charges. Biden’s victory was covered as it was on all the other channels. The differences between Fox News and the further-right-wing Trump panderers, like Newsmax and OAN, were enormous.
It’s already becoming apparent how life at Fox News will change after Trump. On Saturday after Fox called Biden the winner, its ratings plummeted to the lowest of any of the networks.
Had Fox News acted differently, there might have been armed protesters in the streets and no chance that almost half of the country (those who voted for Trump) might come to see the election as fair. Our worst fears might have been realized. But Fox News did what all its fellow news organizations did. By defusing an explosive potential, Fox News advanced the cause of democracy. Any organization that does that deserves our thanks.
Jeffrey Cole is the founder and director of The Center for the Digital Future at USC Annenberg.
See all columns from the center.
November 8, 2020