Shortly after 6 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum stood beside a giant graphic showing exit poll data from the New Hampshire Senate race between Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (R-NH) and Republican challenger Scott Brown.
“And look how tight this is: 49 percent of the independents going for Shaheen at this moment, 50 percent for Brown,” MacCallum said. “This one’s been neck-and-neck all along.”
Within minutes, MacCallum and company were getting called out for an apparent election night faux pas.
“Fox News definitely just broke the rules for exit polls,” read the headline over at the explainer website Vox.
Vox cited a “binding agreement among the media outlets” that make up the National Election Pool, for which the exit polling is conducted by Edison Research, that prohibits them from leaking results before the polls close.
Polls didn’t officially close in New Hampshire until 8 p.m. and Fox’s report came nearly two hours before. So did Fox News break the rules?
Media outlets frequently share driblets from the exit data — demographic information and questions on voters’ mood — all while dutifully sitting on the ultimate top line until the polls close. In an email to TPM on Tuesday night, Fox News said that’s precisely what it did, too.
“According to the National Election Pool (NEP), we are permitted to report exit poll results as long as we don’t characterize the outcome of the race which we did not do earlier this evening,” Fox News executive vice president Michael Clemente said in a statement.
Michael McDonald, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute who’s worked decision desks for ABC News and the Associated Press, said on Tuesday night that Fox News may indeed have been in the right. He also made it clear he did not know the particulars of the contract or sanctions governing the National Election Pool.
“Organizations do that all the time. They report on numbers like racial composition and all sorts of things that you could infer from those numbers what’s going to happen,” McDonald told TPM. “So if it’s just independents, that doesn’t give away everything because you don’t how many independents there are.”