Fox News Purging ‘Real Journalists’

Losing viewers to fringe networks, the Fair and Balanced team is joining them.

On Donald Trump’s last day in office, they fired the man heading up the team that led the way in calling the election for Joe Biden.

WaPo (“Top Fox News managers depart amid Murdoch’s concerns over controversial Arizona election night projection“):

The Fox News executive who oversaw its election night “decision desk” is retiring at the end of the month, a move due in part to what Rupert Murdoch and other top network leaders viewed as a mishandling of the network’s early and controversial Arizona projection for Joe Biden.

Bill Sammon, 62, Fox News Channel’s senior vice president and managing editor in Washington, told staffers Monday morning about his planned retirement. His role will be absorbed by existing editorial staff members. A spokesperson declined to comment on the reason for his retirement.

Sammon previously worked as a White House correspondent for the Washington Times before joining Fox in 2009.

His announcement came as Fox laid off nearly 20 staffers Tuesday, including Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt, who worked on the decision desk with Sammon. Fox declined to comment specifically on Stirewalt, citing employee confidentiality. His departure shocked many inside the building who bemoaned the loss of a respected Washington voice at a time when the conservative-leaning network is navigating its future without President Trump in office.

[…]

Stirewalt, a regular on-air presence, defended Fox’s election night projections after they came under question. “Arizona is doing just what we expected it to do, and we remain serene and pristine,” he said after the network made its call — the first strong indicator that Trump’s reelection hopes were imperiled after an evening of otherwise encouraging early results for the GOP. The Fox call enraged the Trump campaign and altered the narrative of election night media coverage.

While it ultimately proved to be correct, it led to several days of anxiety for Fox, as Biden’s margin over Trump in Arizona continued to narrow during a vote count slowed by the large number of mail-in ballots this year, and other media organizations held off on a decision.

Fox projected Biden’s win in Arizona at 11:20 p.m. on election night when only 73 percent of the vote had been reported. Yet the news was conveyed with little fanfare or preparation for the network’s on-air staff. No announcement was made until anchor Bill Hemmer, reviewing the latest status of an electoral map that was looking positive for Trump, glanced at the southwest, where the decision desk had left its yellow check mark on Arizona awarding the state to Biden.

[…]

Murdoch, Fox News’s co-founder, has told colleagues that the way Fox handled the Arizona call caused reputational damage and cemented the view among some Trump supporters that the network is aligned against him. Even though Fox’s projection ended up being accurate, Murdoch has fretted that it was handled poorly.

Fox recently shook up its evening lineup, replacing former 7 p.m. news anchor Martha MacCallum with a rotating cast of opinion hosts. The move came as Fox’s ratings in that time slot had been outstripped by rivals.

While the decision desk is run by a contractor, Arnon Mishkin, who handled the statistical modeling of the desk, it fell to Sammon to determine editorially when Fox was ready to make its projection on air.

It was Sammon’s role that raised eyebrows in the aftermath of the call, Fox staffers told The Post. But it was Stirewalt’s dismissal that caused more consternation in the building, they said. “A major overreaction to Trump and the audience freakout,” said one staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

NYT (“Fox News Fires a Key Player in Its Election Night Coverage“) adds:

Two senior leaders of Fox News’s reporting division are exiting the network as the cable channel replaces some news programming with right-wing opinion shows and tries to lure back viewers who balked at its coverage of the 2020 election and its aftermath.

[…]

Fox News was the first news outlet to call Arizona for Mr. Biden, a move that infuriated many of its regular viewers — including Mr. Trump, who denounced the network as insufficiently loyal and urged fans to watch Newsmax and One America News instead.

[…]

Executives at Fox News — the profit center of Rupert Murdoch’s American media empire — have been concerned by a postelection drop in ratings, a slump that has persisted for two months as upstart rivals like Newsmax gained viewers by featuring fringier fare that embraced Mr. Trump’s baseless theories about electoral fraud.

Prominent conservative pundits at Fox News who supported Mr. Trump, like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, remain popular and are tied to the network under long-term contracts.

Fox’s corporate leadership has been scrutinizing the news division, which is led by Jay Wallace, the president and executive editor of Fox News Media, according to a person with knowledge of internal discussions. Fox News’s daytime news programs, which often feature conservative guests but are helmed by anchors who do not report to the network’s opinion side, have experienced a sharp loss in viewership.

Mr. Stirewalt appeared on Fox News several times on election night and the days afterward. He vigorously defended the network’s early call of Arizona, even as anchors like Martha MacCallum grilled him about the decision; other TV networks did not call Arizona for Mr. Biden until days later. On Nov. 4, asked on-air about the Trump campaign’s baseless claims of fraud, Mr. Stirewalt memorably replied, “Lawsuits, schmawsuits. We haven’t seen any evidence yet that there’s anything wrong.”

Mr. Stirewalt’s analysis bore out: Mr. Trump did not win Arizona and his team produced no credible findings of fraud. But Mr. Stirewalt’s defense of the Arizona call drew condemnation from Trump fans, and he soon disappeared from the network’s coverage; his last on-air appearance at Fox News was Nov. 16. (Mr. Stirewalt continued to co-host a Fox News politics podcast with the anchor Dana Perino, an episode of which was published on Sunday.)

Daily Beast (“Fox News Launches ‘Purge’ to ‘Get Rid of Real Journalists,’ Insiders Say“) adds:

Politics editor Chris Stirewalt’s exit from the network coincided with the sacking of at least 16 digital editorial staffers, including senior editors. People familiar with the situation said the layoffs—a “blood bath,” as multiple Fox News insiders described it—were perpetrated by Porter Berry, the Sean Hannity crony now in charge of remaking Fox’s digital properties in the image of its right-wing opinion programming.

[…]

[A] dozen current and recently departed Fox News employees who spoke with The Daily Beast all said the “purge”—as a few characterized it—was part of the network’s larger effort to pivot its website from straight-news reporting to right-wing opinion content in the mold of Fox’s primetime programming.

“There is a concerted effort to get rid of real journalists,” said one recently departed Fox staffer. “They laid capable people off who were actual journalists and not blind followers.”

While I never cared much for their opinion hosts, thinking them too strident (Bill O’Reilly) or lightweight (Sean Hannity) even in my days as I staunch Republican, I was a regular viewer of the networks news programming, particularly “Special Report with Brit Hume” and “Fox News Sunday” from 1998 or so until my regular watching of televised news faded out altogether circa 2005. And I tended to watch Fox or CSPAN for “event” coverage like presidential addresses, party conventions, and such for many years after that.

I long maintained, to the consternation of more liberal friends, that there was a rather stark division between the “news side” and the “opinion side,” with the former being first rate. There was some blurring, in that “Special Report” and “Fox News Sunday” had panel discussions at the end, but even they were “fair and balanced,” in the sense that folks like Juan Williams and Mara Liasson were there to give “the other side” and were treated respectfully. They weren’t much different in that regard than shows on other networks, such as ABC’s “This Week with David Brinkley.”

While things clearly got worse in the last decade or so, with more and more of its quality news people forced off the air, the 2020 election night coverage still bore out the distinction: the network cared more about being correct than being right-wing.

But, having built their brand on being “the Republican network” and ultimately in being “the Trump network,” the news side and opinion side became mutually incompatible. Trumpers don’t want news, with its inconvenient facts; they want to hear things that comfort with their worldview.

I hate to see Chris Stirewalt go. His wife was for a while a work colleague of my late first wife and they remained friends through her death. Indeed, she helped make funeral arrangements. Through them, I met Chris and we were social for quite some time before mostly losing touch.

In my Atlantic Council days, I made quite a number of appearances on his Fox News Live show, “Power Play with Chris Stirewalt,” and got to meet and appear with several of the Fox stars including Hume, Williams, and Fred Barnes. Even working in DC, it would up taking 90 minutes of my day to spend 15 on air. Once I took my current job in Quantico, it would have been three hours or more, which was obviously untenable, so I only went if I was otherwise planning on being in DC and eventually the invitations stopped coming.

I haven’t talked to Chris in years, so can’t vouch for his current politics, but he’s almost certainly still more conservative than me. Still, just as old-style Republicans have no home in the party of Trump, reasonable conservatives who care about facts have no home in a network competing with Newsmax and OAN to see who can peddle the most outlandish conspiracy theories.

FILED UNDER: Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. gVOR08 says:

    There’s been some reporting, largely speculative, that Trump planned a “Red Mirage” coup, declaring victory election day evening when he’d be ahead in the counting, then somehow challenging results that shifted Blue. It’s hard to see how such a plan could possibly work. But infeasibility is not evidence it wasn’t Trump’s plan. If it was the plan, FOX threw a monkey wrench in it with their early AZ call. Murdoch may be catching heat for more than losing viewers.

    Karl Rove (generally assumed it was Rove, anyway) commented that their faith based approach would beat our reality based approach because it made them faster on their feet. He may have underestimated the downsides of being detached from reality.

    Kevin Drum has done several posts on FOX making the case that they, not Twitter or Facebook, are the driver of Republican delusion. Here’s one noting the drop in trust in government and correlating it with the growth of FOX. One may hope FOX’s loss of viewers presages a loss of influence, that OAN, Newsmax, whoever, won’t be able to make up. Perhaps we’re moving toward a more zealous, but smaller, delusional GOP base.

    9
  2. Scott says:

    I listened to this recent Axios podcast by Jonathan Swan that talks about Fox’s Election Night where the news anchors were receiving texts directly from Trump campaign staff member, where Don, Jr is calling the Murdochs, etc. Not really wrong from the Trump perspective to try to influence but from the receiving Fox side highly questionable. Maybe that is the way it all works and I’m still a little naive and idealistic after all these years.
    Trump’s Last Stand Part I: Where It Starts

    2
  3. MarkedMan says:

    This may be the beginning of the end for Fox News. The only way to chase this audience is to go crazier and crazier and that strategy usually ends badly. No doubt they think they can smoke just a little crack to show they are one of the cool kids and then step back. I doubt that ends well.

    12
  4. Sleeping Dog says:

    The call on AZ was early and accurate, but the Fox decision desk got hung out to dry when other major news organizations took days to award AZ to Biden. Frankly, that Fox was correct in their call was evident from looking at where the uncounted votes were. In past elections that had been the criteria for declaring a winner, but in 2020, most organizations waited till the lead exceeded the number of uncounted ballots.

    And the circle of epistemic closure becomes smaller.

    4
  5. Michael Cain says:

    The call on AZ was early and accurate, but the Fox decision desk got hung out to dry when other major news organizations took days to award AZ to Biden.

    I made the call about the same time. Biden was ahead, I believed that Arizona’s traditional blue shift would occur*, and Biden would end up winning by over 100,000 votes. What I didn’t account for was that Arizona changed its counting protocol for 2020 and most of the ballots that would have caused that blue shift had already been counted. I was wrong to make the call, but got lucky. I suspect the same thing applies to Fox.

    * For example, in the AZ Senate election in 2018 Sinema didn’t take the lead in the counting until a couple of days after election day, but eventually won by >50,000 votes (the AP didn’t call it until the Monday following the election). California’s blue shift is so pronounced that Republican candidates have been known to concede while they are still ahead in the count.

  6. KM says:

    A “real journalist” working at FOX had to know their days were numbered if they had more than two braincells to rub together. It’s been decades since FOX showed they have no interest in reality and the real money’s in loudmouthed “opinions” and bald-faced lies. I imagine it was like being one of the last telephone switchboard operators, just waiting around to be fired while you are increasingly unable to do your job as tech edges you out. They should have gotten out ages ago.

  7. de stijl says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    The Fox decision desk thankfully did not not know where its bread gets buttered. It did its job.

    Way too soon for the rest of the crew to process.

    As the Trump shirt says FUCK YOUR FEELINGS.

    The outstanding votes were from central Maricopa County. It was the correct call and supported by all previous data. Mesa might tilt Trump but the balance does not.

    Fox on-camera folks may not like it, but it is true. Like the shirt says.

    I am liking Axios’ long read so far.

    1
  8. Kylopod says:

    I think part of the reason for most outlets’ hesitancy in calling AZ goes back to the fear of what happened in 2000. Ironically, back then it was the non-Fox outlets that got in trouble for prematurely calling FL for Gore–then Fox prematurely calling it for Bush (by anchor John Ellis, Bush’s first cousin), an event which I believe played a central role in damaging Fox’s standing as a reputable news service and leading to its marginalization in the mainstream news world.

  9. gVOR08 says:

    I can’t help but be reminded of 2014. FOX called Ohio for Obama, ending Romney’s hopes, and Karl Rove went ballistic on air. He ended up going backstage and arguing with the Call Desk guys. Speaking of election fraud, he sure looked like a man who had thought the fix was in.

    3
  10. gVOR08 says:

    Given recent experience with polling and the unknowable impact of COVID and expanded mail and early voting, the other agencies were waiting, in many cases until the outstanding vote total was lower than the current margin. Frustrating on election evening and the next day, but prudent. Did seem to leave Kornacki hanging, going on for hours trying to avoid saying it was over.

    It was odd that FOX called AZ early. Have to wonder why?

  11. Sleeping Dog says:

    @gVOR08:

    “It was odd that FOX called AZ early. Have to wonder why?”

    My thought is that Fox and other news organization knew of Trump’s plan to declare victory if he had a small lead in enough states at around 10-11PM, in an attempt to forestall the counting of the remainder of the votes. Someone or maybe several Fox people decided to throw a wrench into that plan and they were pretty confident of their numbers in AZ, so they went forward.

    3
  12. inhumans99 says:

    First, what happened to Maria B, I thought she had her head on straight but apparently she is a nutter who believes Antifa disguised themselves as MAGA folk in the insurrection on the 6th, anywho…she is clearly a few beers short of a six pack.

    Next, as noted Kevin Drum has been beating the drum that Fox has been tripling down on turning into a OAN/Newsmax clone. McConnell may not get 16/16 Senators to agree to convict but he knows some GOP Senators will cross the aisle to vote with Democrats on impeachment showing that Trump’s grip on the GOP is not as unbreakable as it once was thought to be. Unlike Fox, McConnell is not tripling down on the crazy conspiracies that have tunneled their way into the heads of many members of the GOP.

    KD was saying that we need to treat Fox News as the enemy of the U.S. when it comes to spreading misinformation, not social media but we may be at a point where we do not have to do any work to weaken Fox News’ grip on the GOP in general and just break out the popcorn and watch them spin off into irrelevancy. Fox News is doing this to themselves as they try to compete with Newsmax.

    Also, I just want to throw this comment in this thread (as good a place as any), my gosh, this just felt like the election that would never end, so thank goodness Biden is finally being sworn in…I think I speak for many here when I say I am spent and exhausted.

    I am aware of the saying that when your enemy is making mistakes it is best not to step in and inform them of this fact and just let them do your job for you, that is what Fox News is doing…abandoning any pretense of being a serious news organization, so if that is what they want to do I say sit back and enjoy the show.

    1
  13. dazedandconfused says:

    Journalism doesn’t pay. Never has, not really. We had a period in history where some people had business models that allowed them to indulge in the art, but those times are past. However, entertainment most definitely does pay, and bigly. I recall when Turner sold CNN for a billion. The new owners dabbled in pure journalism for a bit, but they owed money, big money…so they created a mixture. Turner never gave a damn if it made money or not in day to day ops, he just wanted to be able to watch news whenever he wanted to. Long as it came close to breaking even he was cool with it.

    1
  14. de stijl says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Not just Sleeping Dog but a sly one too. (Plus an ex-homie too).

    That theory might have some descriptive weight.

    Others get to make shit up about election night.

  15. Sleeping Dog says:

    @de stijl:

    It was a ruse that probably would have failed in the end, but it would have caused more chaos than what we had. But Trump, as we know, is a moron and can’t shut up, so too many people knew about it. Add the fact that the Trump WH, leaked like a sieve and the entire press corp knew. Some pundits speculated it long before the election, as it was a very Trumpian plan. Likely the talking heads at Faux News were bragging about that evening and maybe had a pool going on the time it would occur. It is well known that there is a lot of friction at Faux between those who see themselves as journalists and the freak show participants. That one side had a chance to put a figurative shiv between the other’s ribs, would be expected.

    All organizations have their issues, but Faux seems to be an exceptionally toxic place to work.

    1
  16. Kylopod says:

    In March 2020, Byron York wrote a column titled “Three reasons Joe Biden will never be president.” The three reasons are:

    1. No one who served several decades in the Senate has ever become president. Proof: Bob Dole, John Kerry, and John McCain all served several decades in the Senate and failed to become president.

    2. No former vice president out of office has ever become president–except Nixon. But Nixon was a lot younger, so that explains how he was able to overcome this hurdle.

    3. The “14-year-rule” says that no one whose first Senate or gubernatorial victory was 14 or more years ago has ever been elected president. As Biden’s first Senate victory was 47 years ago, that means he’ll never be president.

    I am not exaggerating. This is what Byron York, a prominent conservative pundit, was paid to write back in March of last year.

    2
  17. Kylopod says:

    Sorry, that post was intended for the open thread. It was posted here by mistake.

  18. JohnMcC says:

    Just noticed that Shep Smith, formerly of Faux News, has spoken out on the disinformation machine that is the ‘Opinion’ side of the organization.

    https://edition.cnn.com/2021/01/20/media/shep-smith-fox-amanpour/index.html