Crisis room: Inside the panic at Fox News after the 2020 election

A little more than a week after television networks called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden, top executives and anchors at Fox News held an after-action meeting to figure out how they had messed up.

Not because they had gotten the key call wrong — but because they had gotten it right. And they had gotten it right before anyone else.

Suzanne Scott, who joined the network at its inception in 1996 as a programming assistant, became CEO in 2018. Credit:AP

Typically, it is a point of pride for a news network to be the first to project election winners. But Fox News is no typical news network, and in the days after the 2020 vote, it was besieged with angry protests not only from former President Donald Trump’s camp but from its own viewers because it had called the battleground state of Arizona for Biden. Never mind that the call was correct; Fox News executives worried that they would lose viewers to hard-right competitors such as Newsmax.

And so, on Monday, November 16, 2020, Suzanne Scott, CEO of Fox News Media, and Jay Wallace, the network’s president, convened a Zoom meeting for an extraordinary discussion with an unusual goal, according to a recording of the call reviewed by The New York Times: how to keep from angering the network’s conservative audience again by calling an election for a Democrat before the competition.

Maybe, the Fox News executives mused, they should abandon the sophisticated new election-projecting system in which Fox News had invested millions of dollars and revert to the slower, less-accurate model. Or maybe they should base calls not solely on numbers but on how viewers might react. Or maybe they should delay calls, even if they were right, to keep the audience in suspense and boost viewership.

“Listen, it’s one of the sad realities: If we hadn’t called Arizona, those three or four days following Election Day, our ratings would have been bigger,” Scott said. “The mystery would have been still hanging out there.”

Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, the two main anchors, suggested it was not enough to call a state based on numerical calculations, the standard by which networks have made such determinations for generations, but that viewer reaction should be considered. “In a Trump environment,” MacCallum said, “the game is just very, very different.”

The conversation captured the sense of crisis enveloping Fox News after the election and underscored its unique role in the conservative political ecosystem. The network’s conduct in this period has come under intense scrutiny in a $US1.6 billion ($2.4 billion) defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems.

Court filings in recent days revealed that Fox News executives and hosts considered fraud claims by the Trump camp to be “really crazy stuff,” as Rupert Murdoch, head of the Fox media empire, put it, yet pushed them on air anyway. The recording of the November 16 meeting adds further context to the atmosphere inside the network at that time, when executives were on the defensive because of their Arizona call and feared alienating Trump and his supporters.

In a statement on Saturday, the network said, “Fox News stood by the Arizona call despite intense scrutiny. Given the extremely narrow 0.3 per cent margin and a new projection mechanism that no other network had, of course there would be a wide-ranging post-mortem surrounding the call and how it was executed no matter the candidates.”

In the crosshairs now is Scott, who joined the network at its inception in 1996 as a programming assistant and worked her way up to become CEO in 2018. Media analysts have speculated that she may take the fall; Murdoch testified in a deposition that executives who knowingly allowed lies to be broadcast “should be reprimanded, maybe got rid of.” But Fox later put out word that she was not in danger.

Scott was among the executives who grew alarmed after the network’s Decision Desk called Arizona for Biden at 11:20 p.m. on election night on November 3, 2020, a projection that infuriated Trump and his aides because it was a swing state that could foreshadow the overall result. No other network called Arizona that night, although The Associated Press did, several hours later, and the Fox News journalists who made the call stood by their judgment.

At 8:30 a.m. the next day, Scott suggested Fox not call any more states until certified by authorities, a formal process that could take days or weeks. She was talked out of that. But the next day, with Biden’s lead in Arizona narrowing, Baier noted that Trump’s campaign was angry and suggested reversing the call. “It’s hurting us,” he wrote Wallace and others in a previously reported email. “The sooner we pull it even if it gives us major egg. And put it back in his column. The better we are. In my opinion.”

Arizona had never been in Trump’s column, and the Decision Desk, overseen by Bill Sammon, managing editor for Washington, resisted giving it “back” to a candidate who was losing just to satisfy critics.

But Friday night, November 6, when Sammon’s team was ready to call Nevada for Biden, sealing his victory, Wallace refused to air it. “I’m not there yet since it’s for all the marbles — just a heavier burden than an individual state call,” Wallace wrote in a text message obtained by the Times.

Rather than be the first to call the election winner, Fox News became the last. CNN declared Biden the victor the next day at 11:24 am, followed by the other networks. Fox News did not concur until 11:40 am, about 14 hours after Sammon’s election team internally concluded the race was over.

While Biden held on to Arizona by 10,000 votes, the explosive fallout from Fox News’ call panicked the network. Viewers erupted. Ratings fell.

“I’ve never seen a reaction like this, to any media company,” Tucker Carlson told Scott in a November 9 message released in a court filing. Scott complained to a colleague that Sammon did not understand “the impact to the brand and the arrogance in calling AZ” and it was his job “to protect the brand.”

Rupert Murdoch testified in a deposition that executives who knowingly allowed lies to be broadcast “should be reprimanded, maybe got rid of.”Credit:AP

On November 16, Scott and Wallace convened the Zoom meeting to discuss the Arizona decision. Sammon and Arnon Mishkin, the director of the Decision Desk, were included. Chris Stirewalt, the political editor who had gone on air to defend the call, was not.

Scott invited Baier and MacCallum — “the face” of the network, as she called them — to describe the heat they were taking, according to the recording reviewed by the Times.

“We are still getting bombarded,” Baier said. “It became really hurtful.” He said projections were not enough to call a state when it would be so sensitive. “I know the statistics and the numbers, but there has to be, like, this other layer” so they could “think beyond, about the implications.”

MacCallum agreed: “There’s just obviously been a tremendous amount of backlash, which is, I think, more than any of us anticipated. And so there’s that layer between statistics and news judgment about timing that I think is a factor.” For “a loud faction of our viewership,” she said, the call was a blow.

“I’ve never seen a reaction like this, to any media company.”

Neither she nor Baier explained exactly what they meant by another “layer.” A person who was in the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions said Saturday that Baier had been talking about process because he was upset the Decision Desk had made the Arizona call without letting the anchors know first.

What no one said at the meeting was that Scott would not let Sammon’s team risk the network’s brand again. She decided to push out Sammon and Stirewalt, but fearing criticism for firing journalists who had gotten the call right, she opted to wait until after Georgia.

Murdoch was not keen on waiting. On November 20, four days after the Zoom meeting, according to documents filed by Dominion, he told Scott, “Maybe best to let Bill go right away,” which would “be a big message with Trump people.”

Sammon, who had called every election correctly over 12 years at Fox News and had just been offered a new three-year contract, was told that same day that his contract would not be renewed after all. He heard not from Fox News but from his lawyer, Robert Barnett. Stirewalt was out too.

Fox News would, in the end, wait until after Georgia to announce the purge, without attributing it to the Arizona call. Sammon, who negotiated a severance package, would call his departure a “retirement,” while Stirewalt’s dismissal was characterised as a “restructuring.”

Three weeks later, Fox News announced a new multi-year contract extension for Scott.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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