Book Club: Fox News’ Election Night Fail

FILE - In this March 6, 2012 file photo provided by Fox News, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly poses at the anchor desk at the Fox studios in New York. Fox News says that Megyn Kelly, its popular daytime TV host, will mov... FILE - In this March 6, 2012 file photo provided by Fox News, Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly poses at the anchor desk at the Fox studios in New York. Fox News says that Megyn Kelly, its popular daytime TV host, will move into the network’s prime-time lineup when she returns from maternity leave. Kelly announced this winter that she is expecting her third child sometime this summer. She’s still on the air. (AP Photo/Fox News, Alex Kroke) MORE LESS
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On election night Fox analysts and reporters rightly noted that 2012 had not inspired the kind of captivating campaign that Obama ginned up for victory in 2008. At the start of the night, the Fox News chairman warned commentators participating in his channel’s election coverage: “If things don’t go your way tonight, don’t go out there looking like someone ran over your dog.” Yet the coverage on Fox proved largely dour and depressive. “President Obama will win because he ran a good campaign,” political anchor Bret Baier said early in the evening. “He will not win because of the state of the economy.”

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Viewers would find it hard to believe that the final tally showed Obama had won by nearly four percentage points in the popular vote. Several pundits, including Bill O’Reilly and Stephen Hayes, circled back to Superstorm Sandy as a stroke of good fortune for the incumbent. “While Governor Romney was talking about bipartisanship,” Brit Hume said, “the president gave an image to Americans on television of him practicing it. That’s pretty strong medicine.”

O’Reilly said Republicans had failed to grapple with the changing demographic face of the American electorate. But there was a thread of melancholy woven into his analysis. The day of the traditional white American was done, he said. The U.S. was becoming more like Western Europe, he went on, as Americans wanted others to bear their every burden—turning President John F. Kennedy’s famed admonition on its head. O’Reilly ascribed Obama’s victory to the desire for handouts, especially among people of color, though O’Reilly very explicitly said such indolence cut across racial lines.

Fox analyst and host Dana Perino, the former George W. Bush press secretary, noted that women favored Obama heavily, suggesting that Democrats used abortion to scare them into entering voting booths.

Once the Fox News Decision Desk put Ohio in Obama’s win column, giving the White House to the president, Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace announced that officials with the Romney campaign had called to argue the margin was too small to make such a projection. Correspondents on other networks reported similar complaints a bit later. Karl Rove took up the Romney cause on the air and vigorously attacked his own network’s analysis—to the point where anchor Megyn Kelly called out, “That was awkward!” Late in the evening, Rove returned to the air and contended the margin of Obama’s lead was small and a significant fraction of ballots cast had yet to be tallied.

Kelly asked Rove, “Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?” Ailes later said he had called Michael Clemente, a senior Fox News executive, and ordered the cameras be kept on Rove. The confrontation was great television. Kelly ultimately strode down the hallways of Fox News to the number-crunchers running the desk to have them explain their projections. She owned the studio that night, shushing Wallace and even darting over to brush some lint off Joe Trippi’s shoulders. Yet she couldn’t convince Rove, who reviewed counties he thought were still in play, at one point adding, “and then there are cats and dogs elsewhere that add up to another 120,000 votes.” Rove learned the lessons of the 2000 elections all too well.

By the end, having lost the argument and the night, Rove declared that President Obama’s victory carried little weight. He had “blown the last two years—he’s played small ball,” Rove said around 12:40 AM on Wednesday. “This does not bode well for the future. . . . He may have won the battle but lost the war.” Dick Morris, who had confidently predicted a Romney landslide, did not appear on air.

As he watched returns on election night, Ailes told Chafets that illegal immigrants can no longer be treated with hostility. They cannot be called illegal aliens any more. The following morning, he lectured his senior staff about it on a conference call. Within twenty-four hours, Sean Hannity announced to viewers that his thinking had “evolved” on immigration reform. Things had to change.

The assault against what became known as the conservative media cocoon began swiftly. “Unreal,” George W. Bush’s former chief strategist, Matthew Dowd, tweeted later that Wednesday. “Nearly every piece of data for last 3 weeks pointed to Romney loss. Ray Charles could have seen it coming.” Hume had offered the closest his network’s viewers would receive to a fair-minded note of warning from a non-Democrat. “The state polls portray Obama ahead. And there are a lot of them.” But even he had called the race a tie a few weeks ahead of the election.

Conservatives had taken it on faith that Democratic voter turnout would replicate the deflated levels of 2010, and not the much higher levels of 2008. And Republican professionals had trashed polling altogether.

One aspiring conservative Virginia political consultant set up a blog promising to “unskew” the polls—readjusting them to what he thought they should look like. The polls were the newest front in the all-out war on journalistic bias.

Jon Huntsman Sr., a chemical company billionaire and father of the former Utah governor and failed Republican presidential candidate, took Fox to task during an interview on the channel itself. “I just think the Republican Party was misled by Dick Morris and Karl Rove and these folks,” Huntsman told Fox’s Neil Cavuto. “I am an avid Fox News fan, but, you know, Intrade and . . . [the New York Times’s] Nate Silver—and all these polling services had it right, except Fox. And they lulled us to sleep.”

Huntsman said he wasn’t criticizing the network—in part because he viewed it as “entertainment.”

Huntsman’s categorization of Fox—as entertainment—was being adopted by its corporate owners too.

Adapted from the book Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires by David Folkenflik. Excerpted by arrangement from PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2013.

David Folkenflik is an award-winning journalist who has been NPR’s media correspondent since 2004, and he previously covered media and politics for the Baltimore Sun. He edited the 2011 book, Page One: Inside The New York Times And The Future of Journalism. Folkenflik lives with his wife, the radio producer Jesse Baker, and their daughter in New York City.

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