Fox Tried to Derail the ‘Big Lie’ Before Going All In

Chris Stirewalt takes a victory lap.

NPR (“Fired Fox News politics editor: Trump’s ire at election night call led to ‘panic’“):

The witness seemed to embrace the moment, offering answers with gusto.

Who won the November 2020 U.S. presidential elections? That was the question California lawmaker Zoe Lofgren asked Monday at the hearing of the House Select Committee on the January 6th attacks on Congress.

“Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., of the great state of Delaware” came the reply.

After November 7th, how likely was it for then-President Donald Trump to pull out a surprise victory?

“You’re better off to play the Powerball,” was the answer.

Asked about Fox News’s projection of Biden as the winner of Arizona on Election Night, the network’s former political director, Chris Stirewalt, testified, “Our poll in Arizona was beautiful, and it was doing just what we wanted it to do. And it was cooking up just right.”

Stirewalt spoke to NPR Monday afternoon, just minutes after his testimony wrapped up. Ever the jaunty raconteur, he said the Arizona call made by Fox’s decision desk — before any other U.S. television network — alarmed executives fearful of alienating Trump voters and angered his many allies within the network.

“We don’t award any electoral votes. We don’t count any ballots. We are some nerds in a room, and that’s it,” Stirewalt said in the interview. “We’re just telling you what’s going to happen. We’re not making anything happen.”

“They confused the television show with the real thing”

“And it showed to me how much television — the perceptions of events, of television as entertainment, news as entertainment and treating it like a sport – had really damaged the capacity of Americans to be good citizens in a republic because they confused the TV show with the real thing.”

In some ways, Fox journalists were telling their viewers things they didn’t want to hear. “Part of the problem, of course, was that there were opinion hosts on Fox who, for months and months and months, had been repeating the baseless claim that Trump was going to win the election for sure,” Stirewalt said.

Stirewalt said he was iced from Fox’s airwaves soon after his explanations of why Fox projected Arizona’s election wins. Two months later, as Biden took office, Stirewalt was gone, along with roughly 15 colleagues.

Through a senior spokesperson, Fox News declined to comment for this story. The network has in the past attributed his departure to a typical restructuring after a big election. Its Washington Managing Editor, Bill Sammon, left at the same time, in what was termed a retirement.

Stirewalt offered a wry laugh about that.

“Fox lost the thread over time, but the old idea at Fox was a robust news division,” Stirewalt said. “But for a lot of reasons, there was some panic.”

MEDIAite gets to the heart of the matter with “Chris Stirewalt Lays Out How Fox News Worked to Undermine Trump’s Attempt to Claim Victory on Election Night.”

Former Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt described in testimony before the Jan. 6 House select committee how the network sought to thwart attempts from then-President Donald Trump to mislead the public about how elections work.

Stirewalt explained that Trump, in claiming the 2020 election was stolen, misunderstood common phenomenon during elections — known as the “red mirage” — in which Republicans appear to win on Election Day thanks to in person voting while Democrats belatedly surge as early and mail-in votes are tallied.

“So in every election, certainly a national election, you expect to see the Republican with a lead but it is not really a lead,” Stirewalt said. “When you put together a jigsaw puzzle it doesn’t matter which piece you put in first — it ends up with the same image.”

Stirewalt, who served on Fox’s elections decision desk before he was fired by the network last year, noted that Trump was the first candidate who tried to exploit that “quirk” in the U.S. election process by falsely claiming it was evidence of foul play.

“We had gone to pains — and I’m proud of the pains we went — to make sure that we were informing viewers that this was going to happen,” Stirewalt said. “Because the Trump campaign and the president had made it clear they were going the try to exploit this anomaly.”

He added that the phenomenon was particularly present in the 2020 election, thanks to a surge in voting by mail due to the Covid pandemic.

“So this red mirage, that’s really what you expected to happen on election night?” Committee member Rep. Zoe Lofgren asked Stirewalt at the hearing.

“It happens every time,” he replied.

At its second hearing on Monday, the committee aired testimony from series of Trump officials who said they repeatedly explained the “red mirage” concept to Trump — but that those explanations did not stop the president from stating he had won in a speech on election night.

WaPo’s Margaret Sullivan (“Chris Stirewalt lost his job at Fox News. But he knows he was right.“):

For a guy who made a controversial election-night call and then lost his treasured role with what he has called “the best decision desk in the news business,” Chris Stirewalt appears to have no regrets.

Testifying Monday morning, the former politics editor at Fox News spoke confidently, colorfully and, yes, decisively, about what happened in November 2020 when an erstwhile news organization that has morphed into former president Donald Trump’s propaganda arm went temporarily off script.

Stirewalt and his colleagues on the decision desk made a stunningly early call that challenger Joe Biden had won Arizona. It was only 11:20 p.m. Eastern time, with 73 percent of the vote counted.

They needed both certainty and unanimity to make that call, he told the Jan. 6 select committee. His team relied on the data they had gathered, their knowledge and their experience. They “looked around the room and everybody said ‘yeah,'” he recalled, so they went ahead and moved the crucially important state into Biden’s column — long before any other news organization.

Clear and punchy, Stirewalt’s brief testimony seemed driven by the same quality he extolled on the decision desk: certainty about the evidence-based truth of what he was saying.

“We knew it would be a consequential call,” he said. If Trump indeed lost Arizona, he would face longer odds to win reelection: “Better off to play the Powerball.” Stirewalt was equally blunt under questioning in describing Trump’s chances of winning on a recount or challenge: “None.”

That the Arizona call freaked out Trump World was obvious; having such a verdict, especially coming from his usually dependable cheerleading squadat Fox News, was devastating. The call made it immeasurably harder to put forth the idea that Trump ultimately would prevail, and harder to even pretend that he would. Of course, as we know all too well, that didn’t stop him.

As I recounted here when he was fired, I knew Chris pretty well personally before losing touch over the years. His testimony here doesn’t surprise me in the least. It’s just who he is. He’s a staunch social conservative but one who actually lives the rhetoric about honor and decency. He wants his team to win but only if they do so fairly. And his duty as a journalist is to the truth, not the interests of his party or network bosses.

While they were furious that Stirewalt and his team got out ahead of the rest of the press on Arizona, they ultimately did the right thing and called the election for Biden when it was time. But they would then turn around and purge the few remaining real journalists from the network, ending the longstanding firewall between the news and opinion-infotainment divisions.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2020, Media, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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. MarkedMan says:

    I am liberal on many issues, but feel we as a country can move forward if all parties subscribe to this philosophy:

    He’s a staunch social conservative but one who actually lives the rhetoric about honor and decency. He wants his team to win but only if they do so fairly. And his duty as a journalist is to the truth, not the interests of his party or network bosses.

    14
  2. Argon says:

    I’d like to know Murdoch’s end game with all this. His media properties have behaved similarly in Australia and the UK as well.

    3
  3. Liberal Capitalist says:

    It’s having an effect.

    On some social media the rabid right conservatives now start their rants with “I’m no Trumper, but…” and then they continue with the usual disinformation.

    So, Trump distancing is happening, but the MAGA madness remains strong

    3
  4. MarkedMan says:

    @Argon:

    I’d like to know Murdoch’s end game with all this.

    FWIW, I wouldn’t look to politics for his motivations, but rather to business. Across five continents his media properties attract gullible people easily excited into fear, anger and/or rash behavior. That is worth a fortune to the right advertisers.

    6
  5. grumpy realist says:

    @MarkedMan: The Murdoch equivalent of Nigerian spam, I guess.

    1
  6. CSK says:

    @Liberal Capitalist:
    Just out of curiosity, do you think those people still are rabid Trumpkins, but no longer want to admit it publicly?

    1
  7. Scott F. says:

    I recognize that it’s just the headline and not the premise of the post, but wasn’t Fox “all in” on the Big Lie from the beginning? Before the election even?

    All credit to Chris Stirewalt, but all he did was call Arizona based on confidence in his data model and a commitment to fairness. He’s says the politics division took pains to alert people to the “red mirage,” but can anyone say that those pains moved the needle at all in the election expectations of Fox viewers? And Fox fired him for his efforts.

    3
  8. Raoul says:

    I will be a bit of a contrarian here but calling AZ for Biden election eve was a bad call. Biden did prevail by 11,000 votes or .3 percent. That’s awfully close and there is no way the data seen by Stirewelt after 73% of the vote was counted showed a Biden win using a normal logarithms. He most certainly should have waited. The point is like a typical Republican journalist hack, he wanted to be the “guy”. And let’s be clear, calling AZ for Biden was calling the election for Biden. Let’s put it another way, none of the other networks followed Fox, probably because they had more robust data. I would like to see Stirewelt’s numbers that evening and how they relate to the actual outcome, I’m pretty sure they were significantly off and he deserved to be fired for incompetency.

  9. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan: And as you noted yesterday (? maybe the day before–it all blurs together for me these days), if we all loved each other more, there wouldn’t be any wars either.

    1
  10. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Liberal Capitalist: “So, Trump distancing is happening, but the MAGA madness remains strong”

    It almost as if FG isn’t the cause at all–like there’s something wrong with the people and what they believe and want.

    7
  11. Jon says:

    @Raoul: Counterpoint: he was correct to call AZ, based on his numbers and forecasts, and this was born out by the fact that Biden did indeed win AZ. He explained the basis for his numbers, to a degree, during the hearings yesterday. And accusing him of being “a typical Republican journalist hack” and speculating that ‘he wanted to be the “guy”’ just sounds like sour grapes, as does baseless speculation that his numbers “were significantly off and he deserved to be fired for incompetency.”

    6
  12. James Joyner says:

    @Scott F.: While I think the news/opinion divide had already been shrinking, my real-time sense (as someone reading about the broadcast media rather consuming it directly) was that the Hannitys were all in from the beginning but the reporters were more or less reporting the facts as they understood them.

    3
  13. Raoul says:

    @Jon: The fact that Biden won AZ does not mean it was the right call at the time, that’s just nonsense. I saw C-Span and please pray tell the basis for his numbers apart from the fact that he said they are the best is the business.

    1
  14. Jon says:

    @Raoul: I said, in part, “he was correct to call AZ, based on his numbers and forecasts.” So, according to the models he and his team created and used it was the correct call at the time. The fact that Biden did go on to win AZ lends credence to that decision and implies that the models were indeed good and accurate. I don’t know if they actually were good, but neither do you. All we know is that they called AZ for Biden and then Biden did indeed win AZ. That does not prove that the models they used were better than others (although it does not disprove it either) but it certainly does *not* imply “they were significantly off and he deserved to be fired for incompetency.”

    And not to be snarky, but I’m not sure “I saw C-Span” is as dispositive as you think it is 😉

    3
  15. Michael Cain says:

    @Raoul: I made the same call for AZ at about the same time, based on AZ’s historical blue shift from mail ballots counted late in the process. What I failed to account for was that AZ had made significant procedural changes that had never been used before that election that had the result of making the blue shift disappear. I maintain that I got lucky.

    CA has an even more remarkable blue shift. So much so that some Republican candidates have been known to concede while still leading in the ballot count.

    2
  16. Kathy says:

    @Raoul:

    The thing about relying on a commercial news, or even “news,” network for propaganda, is that what these organizations love above all else is still to scoop the competition.

  17. Scott F. says:

    @James Joyner:
    Your mileage surely varies, but (as someone reading about Fox rather consuming it directly, but also as someone with a mother-in-law who has been irretrievably drawn into the network’s disinformation ecosystem) I think the news/opinion divide was a fiction created so journalists who wanted to believe they were decent and honorable could still draw their paycheck from a propaganda machine. The firewall between the news and opinion-infotainment divisions was crumbling well before Trump. All TFG’s ascendancy did was make the fiction harder to pass as fact.

    5
  18. gVOR08 says:

    @Jon: @Raoul: The relevant question isn’t, “Was Stirewalt correct to call AZ when and how he did?” but, “Was there any evidence that the call was corruptly motivated or that supports a belief there was anything irregular in AZ’s voting or counting to support any claim of Trump’s?” Were we to stipulate for sake of argument that, say, Stirewalt was overeager to be first to call AZ, what difference would it make?

    3
  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Scott F.: My feeling is that the belief in honest journalists at FOX, and a believe in a split between the opinion and news sides, reflects on the FOX side ongoing decisions about maintaining any credibility and on the MSM side the longstanding and ongoing unicorn hunt for “moderate” Republicans. Their bothsides worldview requires moderate Republicans so there must be moderate Republicans hiding in the brush somewhere. A problem fed by the MSM confusing their private selves and their public selves. Some of them may be rational in their private roles and off the record, but in their public roles they’re constrained by their fellow party members and leadership, and their extremist primary voters. There’s a feeling that what they really are is what they are in their hearts. Which is both unknowable and irrelevant. What they really are is their donors, their votes, and their public rhetoric. Not how much fun you had on McCain’s tire swing or how moderate Romney was when faced with a D majority Mass. legislature.

    3
  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    There is consumer demand for lies.

    5
  21. charon says:

    @Jon: AZ turning out as close as it did says his models were bad. He is really lucky Biden squeaked by in AZ, because his bad models and resulting premature call could have left him seriously embarrassed, and been a great talking point for Trumpist whining.

  22. Jon says:

    @charon: For whatever reason y’all really want this to be a story of “man this guy sucked but got lucky.” All I’m saying is that we don’t know that for sure, and given that Biden did indeed win AZ an argument can be made that he may actually have been correct rather than lucky. Since we don’t have access to his models we don’t know; it’s all speculation.

    Also, *everything* is a great talking point for Trumpist whining. That’s just how they do.

    3
  23. CSK says:

    @charon:
    Oh, come now. Stirewalt is clearly not enamored of Trump and has paid for it by losing his job. He’s willing to testify. Cut him some slack.

    And his models turned out to be right, so they couldn’t have been that bad.

    8
  24. CSK says:

    Test

  25. DK says:

    @charon:

    AZ turning out as close as it did says his models were bad.

    His models said Biden would win AZ. Biden won AZ.

    Is there another definition of “bad” that I don’t know of?

    6
  26. charon says:

    @Jon:

    For whatever reason y’all really want this to be a story of “man this guy sucked but got lucky.”

    That is false, not true, I have no animus against him. I am just observing that at that stage, that early, there was a lot more uncertainty than the eventual margin so yeah, he got lucky.

  27. charon says:

    @charon:

    At that point, if I had been a bookie under the gun to bet the outcome, I would have guessed maybe a 60% likelihood for Biden as a reasonable book. In my view, you need a 95% certainty for a network call because the downside is just too high.

  28. DK says:

    @charon:

    there was a lot more uncertainty than the eventual margin so yeah, he got lucky.

    That’s not my recollection from what the New York Times needle was saying, but okay.

  29. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Being a guy who might well have voted for Trump in a past life and grew up around the sort of rabid conservatism we’re currently seeing, my inclination is to believe that the draw is not to FG as much as it is to authoritarianism run by a specific cohort of people (mostly themselves or people like them). Evangelicals have in their philosophical DNA a predisposition for seeking “strong” government–preferably government that will resemble that of the millennium, where GOD will rule, justly, but “with a rod of iron.” FG was the current “no-nonsense businessman” (in much the same way that had given Perot his cachet) who had the “courage” to say “You’re fired!” to some hapless schnook on national TV while his minions–George and Caroline–nodded sagely and proclaimed “Good call! It had to happen that way.” Exactly what conservatives in general and evangelicals in particular look for. That they will take FG–the epitome of worldliness and squalor as “God’s Chosen”–shows both the intellectual/spiritual/philosophical poverty of the movement and the desperation of a movement that, as a part of a marketplace of competing ideas, is losing ground rapidly.

    Beyond that, it seems reasonable to me that conservatives–and probably a significant cohort of evangelicals in specific–lean pretty far into the “J” end of the continuum on a Meyer-Briggs model (or whatever personality trait you wish to name on whatever personality profile you prefer, for those of you who will discount my thinking now because I mentioned the heretical). An observation that has stuck with me from my teacher college days is that as teachers, J-types see the goal of education to be idealized when their work produces replicas of themselves. And I’ve seen a fair number of people who got into teaching in order to tell students what to do (and what to think and what to believe and…).

    I’m reminded of a story from my Korea days that I hope will pull my thoughts together. While in Daegu, I attended a Baptist-by-any-other-name congregation pastored by an unreconstructed SBC pastor (? he may only have been a lay preacher, he was a little evasive about this IIRC). One day, just before he started his sermon he mused aloud that it would be a really different and better world if the only book we had to read was The Bible. In my cynicism, I thought to myself, “I don’t see anyone stopping you from going that way.” As I reflected on it later, I noted that he had not said “I’ve tried this and it transformed my life; I think you should try it too.” I also noted that he was not declaring that it was not a practice that he was adopting but rather something that you should do.

    That’s always the key, it seems. Over and over. “Do what I tell you to do.” It’s why the GOP is seen as the “Daddy Party.” When FG is gone, I wonder who the next “Daddy”/”called out by GOD King Cyrus” will be?

    7
  30. senyordave says:

    @Argon: I’d like to know Murdoch’s end game with all this.
    Why does there need to be an end game? By all accounts Murdoch is a sorry excuse for a human being. In my view, the three people who’ve done the most damage politically to this country in the last four decades are Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich and Rupert Murdoch. When Murdoch dies, I’ll have a glass of my favorite wine, and even though I don’t normally smoke cigars, I’ll light up a Cohiba (my new daughter -in-law is Cuban and her father has a source).

  31. gVOR08 says:

    @senyordave:

    In my view, the three people who’ve done the most damage politically to this country in the last four decades are Mitch McConnell, Newt Gingrich and Rupert Murdoch.

    I entirely agree. However I’d also blame the Koch Bros, Mellon-Scaife, the Mercers, and a fairly long list of people, living and some dead, who paid McConnell and Gingrich, and probably Murdoch.

    2
  32. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Well, it’s hard to say who the next God-King might be. DeSantis? He might be too slick and too well-educated to appeal to people who embrace Trump precisely because he’s a semi-literate oaf and buffoon.

    When Trump dies, or gets permanently knocked out of contention either by the justice system or general age and debilitation, a fair number of his fans may retreat into their holes. Recall that there were people in their forties and fifties who had never voted before who came out for Trump.

  33. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK:

    DeSantis? He might be too slick and too well-educated to appeal to people who embrace Trump precisely because he’s a semi-literate oaf and buffoon.

    He’s doing pretty good with them down here in FL.

  34. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    Oh, I know. But does he attract hordes of drooling dimwits nationwide?

    I think they’d accept DeSantis, but only as his vice president during a second term for Trump.

  35. dazedandconfused says: