How Fox News Foiled Trump’s Plan to Steal the Election

The television network known for spewing the president’s propaganda is now being accused by right wingers of being biased.

Donald Trump telegraphed his plan to steal the election in the days leading up to Nov. 3. He wanted to declare victory on election night, stop the counting mail-in votes he considered illegal, and, if necessary, send the election to the judiciary and eventually the Supreme Court. 

Implementing that strategy would require a public relations effort in which Trump made at least a plausible case that he had won re-election. Michigan and Wisconsin looked out of reach. So the president would need to maintain the illusion that he was winning the rest of his 2016 states to have any pathway to 270 electoral votes. The most vulnerable were Pennsylvania and Arizona. 

Republicans had ensured, via the courts, that Pennsylvania couldn’t begin counting mail-in ballots prior to November 3rd. So Trump was relying on an early lead in that state coming from those who had voted in person on Election Day. That made Arizona pivotal to the public relations campaign for Trump to claim victory. 

But at 11:20 pm on Tuesday, Fox News foiled the plan by calling Arizona for Biden. The Associated Press followed at 2:50 AM. Eventually, they were joined by NPR, “PBS NewsHour,” Univision, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. With Arizona gone, Trump would have no clear path to 270 electoral votes.

As had been predicted, the call set up a showdown at Fox News. The Trump campaign was livid. According to Washington Post reporters Sarah Ellison and Josh Dawsey, the White House sprang into action.

Trump erupted in anger, telling others in the White House to “get that result changed,” a senior administration official said. His chief of staff, Mark Meadows, phoned Fox News’s decision desk repeatedly. Top aide Hope Hicks, who had returned to the White House earlier this year after a stint at Fox Corp., messaged Raj Shah, a former Trump White House staffer whom she hired at Fox, about how to get the call reversed. Kellyanne Conway got in touch with Fox News chief political anchor Bret Baier to complain. Jared Kushner reached out to Fox Corp.’s billionaire owner, Rupert Murdoch.

In response, Fox News anchor Bret Baier brought Arnon Mishkin, the head of their decision desk, on air to explain himself. Mishkin stood his ground.

As of Tuesday, other major media outlets still haven’t called Arizona, setting up some interesting contrasts. For example, here’s the banner from the election results page at the New York Times:

And here’s the one from Fox News:

What led Fox News, the Associated Press, and other organizations to call Arizona early? To understand, it is important to keep in mind that the modeling used by media to project winners includes exit poll data. In 2017, the Associated Press broke away from the consortium of news organizations that relied on Edison Research to conduct exit polling. Instead, they worked with the non-partisan research organization, NORC at the University of Chicago, to poll over 100,000 voters by phone in the days before the election. That turned out to be a prescient move for an election dominated by mail-in ballots and early voting. All media outlets that relied on AP’s VoteCast data, including Fox News, have called Arizona for Biden. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean that Fox News is united on the election outcome. Their opinion hosts continue to parrot Trump’s claim of a “stolen election,” as do guests like Newt Gingrich.

Even though the opinion side of Fox News is still championing Trump’s lost cause, the president’s enablers have gone into battle mode against the television network known for spewing the president’s propaganda. For example, John Nolte at Breitbart News wrote that, because Fox News hasn’t been sufficiently loyal to Trump, the network has “forever lost their core viewers, the people who were once the most loyal.”  At the Epoch Times, Roger Simon wrote that Fox’s decision room “is only another example of the incestuous corruption that’s a hallmark of this post-modern fascism.”

Matthew Sheffield, reflecting on his exodus from right-wing news, provided some insight into the non-existent journalism standards that have sparked those claims.

U.S. conservatives do not understand the purpose of journalism. This became evident to me as I saw that conservative-dominated media outlets were MUCH more biased than outlets run by liberals. I eventually realized that most people who run right-dominated media outlets see it as their DUTY to be unfair and to favor Republicans because doing so would somehow counteract perceived liberal bias…

I also discovered, as I rose through the right-wing media ranks, that most conservative media figures have no journalism training or desire to fact-check their own side. I also saw so many people think that reporting of info negative to GOP politicians was biased, even if it was true.

The decision desk at Fox News is reporting the truth. But because that truth hampers Trump’s ability to steal the election, it has been labeled “biased.” That pretty much captures how right-wing media has become a news bubble for conservatives. For those of us who have been watching Fox News attack reputable media organizations as “biased” since its founding in 1996, the whole situation reeks of irony.

The importance of the Arizona call should not, however, be overlooked. The Trump campaign had to recalibrate their plans to comic effect. At Rudy Giuliani’s press conference at Four Seasons Total Landscaping in Philadelphia on Saturday, the strategy was no longer to pressure the media into calling the race for Trump. The script had been flipped entirely and, according to Giuliani, “Networks don’t get to decide elections. Courts do.” In other words, the president is still counting on the Supreme Court. But his once-favorite propaganda network refused to aid and abet the crime.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.