The Two Sides of Fox News

Last night amplifies a long pattern.

I noted earlier that Fox News was not only pushing back on President Trump’s absurd claims of victory but actually led the way in calling Arizona for Biden. While commentators were surprised by that, the news desk has always strived to be taken seriously as journalists; it’s the opinion side of the house that gives them a reputation as partisan hacks.

A story in today’s Washington Post (“Trump campaign was livid when Fox News called Arizona for Biden — and tensions boiled over on-air“) dives deeper into the phenomenon:

Fox anchor Bill Hemmer was gearing up to do another review for viewers of a map of the United States that at 11:20 p.m. was looking surprisingly positive for President Trump when he did a double take in the lower left-hand quadrant.

“Have we called Arizona?” he asked, sounding stunned.

Indeed, with only 73 percent of its vote reported, the analysts on the cable giant’s stridently independent decision desk had already bestowed a yellow check mark on the Grand Canyon State — putting it in Joe Biden’s column long before any other network was making that call.

It was one of several times throughout the night that the president’s favorite network declared results long before its competitors — and not necessarily in the president’s favor. Trump campaign officials were livid, and the tensions boiled over onto the broadcast, where former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insisted it was a “premature call,” and anchor Bret Baier called upon decision-desk director Arnon Mishkin to explain himself on camera, because “we’re getting a lot of incoming here.”

“I’m sorry,” Mishkin said, “the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes to eliminate that seven-point lead that the former vice president has.” Told the White House was convinced otherwise, he stood his ground: “I’m sorry we’re not wrong in this particular case.” (“You don’t have to apologize,” Baier told Mishkin.)

Mishkin, a registered Democrat who works for Fox as a contractor, would go on to apologize several times throughout the course of the night — not for being wrong, but for daringly delivering calls that were so early they initially looked suspect. His calls added pressure on other news outlets reporting on a highly competitive race in a country that was uniquely divided and anxious about its result. And they helped ramp up the tension on a night when Trump was brazenly urging the vote count to be stopped before all early and absentee ballots were counted.

Now, as a general rule, I would prefer news outlets not lean forward in calling races where there is a mathematical chance of a comeback. But, regardless, Mishkin and the news desk acted as they should have: trying to get it right and do so ahead of the competition. That’s journalism.

The two sides of Fox — strongly pro-Trump pundits and the more measured anchors — were on display Tuesday night almost immediately after the polls closed. Just after 7 p.m., Fox called Virginia for Biden — even though Trump appeared far ahead in the official vote count before the heavily Democratic suburbs came in — and the network’s politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, came on-air to defend the projection. “Our call will hold, we feel very confident,” he said.

But when Trump unexpectedly racked up an impressive lead in Florida, which he quickly won, Fox brought out its most popular prime-time host, Tucker Carlson, who attacked the mainstream media for once again underestimating Trump’s popularity.

Interestingly, Fox was way ahead of the competition here, too. I spent most of the night watching CNN—trying to avoid partisan spin—and they were mostly terrible. (John King is excellent but Wolf Blitzer really harms the telecast.) They were well behind the game in making calls. Which, again, I don’t mind per se—I’d prefer that than the debacle that was the 2000 coverage—but the compounded it by pretending that Trump was winning states that he was clearly not going to win.

Stirewalt, whose show I used to go on with some frequency when I still worked in DC, is also excellent. He is (or at least was) a partisan Republican but he’s first and foremost an analyst; he’s not going to embarrass himself by making false claims only to be proven wrong hours later.

Alas, the infotainment hosts are almost universally hacks:

“I think it’s interesting that the emphasis of the leaders of the Democratic Party has been on race and racism. . . . It’s remarkable that this president, denounced every day as a racist,” did so well among Latino voters, Carlson said. “The Black Lives Matter message is very appealing to White suburban voters, but it’s unappealing to some non-White voters. Who expected that?”

Opinion host Laura Ingraham, meanwhile, did a quick segment from the South Lawn, having slipped out of Trump’s election night party at the White House. Sean Hannity, the Fox host who is closest to Trump and speaks to him nearly every day, did not make an on-air appearance Tuesday night.

The mood among some inside Fox at that early part of the evening was giddy that the night was not a blowout for Biden, something that would have driven viewers off the air early, according to Fox staffers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk about their employers.

But, again, the news hosts tried to get it right:

Fox’s decision desk didn’t rush to all of its calls. Long after it seemed that Florida would go for Trump, Fox waited to call it. Baier wondered out loud why the network could not call Florida earlier. Wallace declared that “the story of this night hasn’t been told yet” and likened the race up to that point to a tennis match, where both Biden and Trump had held serve.

When some on set questioned why the network couldn’t make that call given how clear the result seemed, Baier joked about Fox’s premature call of Florida in the contested 2000 election. But as soon as Fox called Arizona for Biden, that kind of banter came to a halt on Fox News — and all anyone could do was start to count the different paths to 270 electoral college votes.

Which is why people tune in to TV coverage rather than just wait for the results to be published.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, 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. CSK says:

    Given that Trump fanatics hate Brett Baier and Chris Wallace with a white-hot passion, the two of them must be doing something right.

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  2. Andy says:

    I’ve never understood why anyone watches the opinion shows and not just on Fox, but on all the networks. This past spring I decided to see what they were like and watched part of Hannity, Maddow, and Cuomo. What a shit-show.

    I try not to think ill of people, but I have a hard time taking anyone who watches these shows seriously. Watching them makes you dumber and less informed. I have a few relatives who watch the Fox shows and some others who watch MSNBC and they honestly believe the vomit they’re being spoon-fed. They are family so all I can do is nod and roll my eyes.

    I don’t get it.

    But I also think their influence is overblown. A normal audience across all the shows is 5-6 million which sounds like a lot until you consider it’s less than 2% of the population.

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @Andy:

    I’ve never understood why anyone watches the opinion shows and not just on Fox, but on all the networks.

    Before starting this blog, I was a pretty enthusiastic consumer of them. Then again, they were fewer and farther between in those days and the Internet hadn’t become the best way to get information and analysis on politics. (And I was single with no kids, so had more free time on my hands.)

    For political junkies, these shows serve the same function as the prognostication shows do in sports coverage. There’s no real use in listening to people speculate about games that are going to eventually be played, either, but it’s entertaining and informative in its own way.

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  4. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    I would occasionally watch some of the shows in the 90’s for largely the same reasons as you. I also watched Firing Line on PBS and the McLaughlin Group. Maybe I have rose-colored glasses, but it seems to me the current shows are much, much worse.

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  5. Sleeping Dog says:

    Last night I felt that the networks were slow to call winners because they wanted to be absolutely sure and where it went against Trump, avoid his tantrum. No one wanted to be the Detroit News in 2016

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  6. Bill says:

    12 years ago I was a contributor at this conservative blog which at the time got lots of traffic many regular commenters just like here.

    The other writers were pro John McCain and so was I but I didn’t think he was going to win in Nov 2008. Most of the other writers were always seeming to find poll numbers or other evidence that McCain would overcome Obama. I didn’t buy into it.

    Honestly I wrote less politics centered posts than most of the contributors there. I was the rebel if a not very loud one. There was a small chorus of commenters who said I belonged at the Blue version of the website.

    So there are dissidents at Fox News. Why am I not surprised.

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  7. Mikey says:

    @Andy:

    I’ve never understood why anyone watches the opinion shows and not just on Fox, but on all the networks.

    I don’t watch them either, with one exception: MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. I can do without Maddow and the rest, but for whatever reasons I like how Hayes sees things.

    I don’t know why literally all the others leave me cold but Hayes appeals to me, but I’ll watch his show and listen to his weekly podcast, where he often has interesting guests.

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  8. James Joyner says:

    @Andy:

    I also watched Firing Line on PBS and the McLaughlin Group. Maybe I have rose-colored glasses, but it seems to me the current shows are much, much worse.

    They probably are. In those days, there were four channels and a daily newspaper, 30-minute nightly newscast, and a weekly news magazine. Now, the shows have to be hyper-targeted and sensational to break through.

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  9. Bill says:

    @Andy:

    I would occasionally watch some of the shows in the 90’s for largely the same reasons as you. I also watched Firing Line on PBS and the McLaughlin Group.

    I used to be a semi-regular watcher of the McLaughlin Group.

    Do you remember Crossfire? I rarely watched that show.

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  10. Bill says:

    @James Joyner:

    They probably are. In those days, there were four channels and a daily newspaper, 30-minute nightly newscast, and a weekly news magazine. Now, the shows have to be hyper-targeted and sensational to break through.

    The newsweekly I used to read up till my 87-89 stint in the Philippines, was US News and World Report. I didn’t recontinue my subscription after returning home.

    I did subscribe to opinion magazines The New Republic and National Review both before and after my being stationed in the PI. James, if I recall correctly you subscribed to those too in the past.

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Andy: No. They really are worse than they were a generation or so ago. I think that one significant difference is that McLaughlin and others in the 90s featured actual journalists rather than TV personalities/pseudo pundits. Who considers Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, or even Rachel Maddow journalists? Have ANY of them ever been actual journalists? Ever?

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  12. Andy says:

    @Mikey:

    I don’t watch them either, with one exception: MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. I can do without Maddow and the rest, but for whatever reasons I like how Hayes sees things.

    I’ve never seen his show, but he does seem like a pretty mainstream progressive based on his essays and articles I’ve read. Nice to hear he’s not a bomb-thrower.

    @Bill:

    Do you remember Crossfire? I rarely watched that show.

    Oh yeah, I forgot about that one. I remember it being more confrontational and polemical than the other shows. I wasn’t a regular watcher.

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  13. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Well, I don’t watch TV at all.

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  14. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    Well, Ingraham was editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth Review and Carlson was a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, if those count.

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: Well since I asked about “ever,” I guess I have to accept the claim if they want to make it.

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  16. Pylon says:

    Man, do I agree with you about Blitzer. Breathless repetition of vote totals when he knew or should have known there were large outstanding issues. And the stupid announcements of things that were not actually news or even interesting. Anderson Cooper, or Erin Burnett would be so much better.

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  17. Bob@Youngstown says:

    FWIW,
    I am partial to Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow.
    In particular I appreciate their courtesy.
    I especially like when Maddow teaches me something new, like a historical perspective, or spends to explain the intricacies of nuclear disasters.
    But mostly because neither are ‘hair-on-fire’ liberals.

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  18. Pylon says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Fox, of course, has just argued successfully in court that Carlson is just an entertainer and not to be believed by any reasonable viewer.

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  19. Kiki says:

    @Pylon Breathless repetition of vote totals when he knew or should have known there were large outstanding issues.

    Similar to hearing halftime scores on Sunday afternoon – things that really do not matter.

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  20. James Joyner says:

    @Kiki:

    Similar to hearing halftime scores on Sunday afternoon – things that really do not matter.

    Actually, no. Halftime scores in a sporting contest actually matter–they represent where the game is at the halfway point. If a team is trailing by three touchdowns, they have a real mountain to climb. Conversely, partial vote counts tell us very little because which votes is key. The problem is that we treat them the same: Trump is ahead in the early voting and Biden has to catch up. No. All the votes are in. We’re just counting Trump’s votes first and then it appears something unfair is happening as Biden mounts a “comeback.”

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  21. keef says:

    Firing Line was the gold standard. An in depth, well considered exchange between differing views.

    It is missed.

    This blogsite might want to consider that.

    ReplyReply

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