Fox News is previewing its coverage of the 2012 presidential election by invoking its "fair and balanced" mantra. In the 2000 election, however, Fox's conservative agenda not only failed to inform its viewers, but added to the confusion surrounding the results of the race.
In The Fox Effect, Media Matters' David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt explained how Fox News' decision to turn to right-wing media consultant John Ellis -- a cousin of George W. Bush -- to analyze the race led the network to prematurely call the 2000 presidential election for Bush. Fox's call caused other networks to follow suit, and led not onlyto confusion about the race but to establishing the basis for the narrative that Vice President Al Gore was a "sore loser" for requesting a recount:
As the 2000 presidential race began to heat up, Fox found its niche. The network's average daily audience was still barely half of CNN's, but there were times -- during the Republican National Convention, for example -- when Fox News actually surpassed CNN in the ratings.1
To aid that year's election-night coverage, Fox hired journalist and media consultant John Ellis to help analyze the results. It was Ellis who determined that Fox News should call the state of Florida -- and the election -- for George W. Bush, leaving the rest of the networks playing catch-up. They would retract this prediction hours later, but the projection, while not carrying any official weight, set in motion the dynamic that Bush had already won and created the perception that Gore's attempts to get a recount made him a sore loser. Ellis was not an impartial observer; he was a Bush cousin who had been communicating with the campaign's headquarters all night.
In the Congressional hearings that followed the election-night debacle, Roger Ailes began his testimony with a conciliatory note, admitting, "Fox News, along with all the other television networks, made errors on election night which cannot be repeated, the biggest of which occurred in Florida." Ailes continued, "Fox News acknowledges here that it failed the American public on Election Night and takes full responsibility for this failure."2
Ailes went on to enthusiastically defend his employee, telling the committee that Fox News' "investigation of election night 2000 found not one shred of evidence that Mr. Ellis had revealed information to either or both of the bush brothers." But, as Brock and Rabin-Havt explain, Ailes' account was not exactly solid:
Ailes made these remarks even after it was confirmed by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker that Ellis's communications with his family were not entirely professional in nature. In her accounting of election night at Fox News headquarters, she wrote:
As the afternoon wore on, things weren't looking good for George W. Bush. At about 6 P.M., after two waves of exit polls, Fox News's chairman, Roger Ailes, called Ellis into his office for a private briefing. "What's your gut say?" Ailes asked him. Silently, Ellis slid his index finger across his throat.
Soon afterward, Ellis received a telephone call from the Bush brothers. "They were, like, How we doin'?" Ellis recalled. "I had to tell them it didn't look good."3
The Bush campaign was not a source for Ellis at Fox News; just the opposite was true. The network was supplying political data directly to George W. and Jeb Bush. These conversations took place throughout election night. "At 2 a.m., Ellis called his cousins and told them, 'our projection shows that it is statistically impossible for Gore to win Florida.' They were elated. 'Their mood was up, big time,' Ellis recalled. 'It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth -- me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other the president-elect. Now, that was cool.'"4
1. Collins, Crazy Like a Fox, 155.
2. "Election Night 2000 Coverage by the Networks," hearing before the Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives, February 14, 2001, energycommerce.house.gov/107/hearings/02142001Hearing216/print.htm
3. Jane Mayer, The Talk of the Town, "Dept. of Close Calls George W.'s Cousin," The New Yorker, November 20, 2000, 36.
4. Jane Mayer, The Talk of the Town, "Dept. of Close Calls George W.'s Cousin," The New Yorker, November 20, 2000, 36.