Fox News on Election Night: The Network’s Coverage Can Shape the Future

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Flashback to two years ago, on the eve of the 2020 presidential election. IndieWire made a recommendation that, even if you never watched Fox News Channel, this might be a good time to give it a shot. We thought it would be interesting, but didn’t realize how right we were.

Fox’s early and near-solitary call that Joe Biden won Arizona had an immense impact on what became a long and drawn-out process of certifying his victory. To this day, that reality hasn’t been accepted by many Republicans — including Arizona’s current Republican nominee for governor, who based her campaign on election denial.

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That accurate projection drew the displeasure of the White House, but Fox stuck by it — a decision that deflated then-President Donald Trump’s plan to declare an unfounded victory before supporters that evening.

Early calls can make a huge difference. In 2000, when the national broadcast networks declared George W. Bush the winner only to retract the call 90 minutes later, Republicans then claimed no other result was credible — even when it turned out to be far from resolved.

Despite its conservative bias, Fox News has earned a reputation for playing it straight with projections; it’s also extremely competitive in its desire to be the first to call. However, between election night 2020 and the following Saturday — when Nevada, North Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona all hung in the balance (and all but North Carolina were won by Biden) — Fox lagged. It was the last network to declare Biden the winner.

Sources at Fox News confirm the return of Arnon Mishkin, the well-regarded director of its election-night projection desk. Political director Chris Stirewalt, a witness at the House 1/6 Committee hearings who was involved in Fox’s decision to project Biden’s Arizona win, was fired in early 2021. (The network said it was part of a digital restructuring.)

Not only is Fox News Channel a reputable destination on Election Night, it is also a popular one. For the past two election nights, in 2018 and in 2020, Fox News Channel has nabbed more viewers than any other news network, broadcast or cable. It has also attracted the most viewers between the ages of 25 and 54, which is the key demographic for news programming.

Projections will be critical, particularly if they show a stronger-than-expected showing for Democrats — or even if Democrats win in close races. The last two years of Fox News coverage never embraced outright election denial, but the primetime block of Tucker Carlson/Sean Hannity/Laura Ingraham stoked fears of larger liberal and Democratic threats.

Last night, Tucker Carlson got an early start. On “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” he told viewers: “Message, bottom line: Democrats absolutely cannot lose tomorrow’s elections. That’s their view: This cannot happen. With that in mind, they’re already preparing the rest of us for election theft — which, if you don’t want a civil war, you shouldn’t complain about, you should just passively accept.”

Today, everyone will watch the reactions of openly political commentators as results come in. Any suggestion of fraud will find receptive ears and that could have a significant impact on our tinderbox of a nation.

Voting is much slower than our technology. Extended deadlines for mail ballots delay final results; will the reporters who cover the election lean into that reality? In 2020, we learned that nuance and patience were critical but we also saw how hard it was to claw back a lie that had no strength beyond one person choosing to say it. That could be a real threat to democracy.

If Republicans claim victory when the balance of power remains in dispute, Fox’s response could stoke — 0r calm — tensions in the days ahead. Many key races may be up in the air for weeks. In California, where multiple U.S. House races remain close, ballots postmarked by election day can be counted if received a week or more later. In Georgia, if neither Raphael Warnock nor Herschel Walker gets a majority and the result is needed to control the Senate, a runoff will be needed to determine the winner.

The pro-Democratic MSNBC is likely to be more cautious (it certainly was in 2020); CNN, CBS, NBC, and ABC also can be expected to hold back on premature pronouncements and challenge partisan assertions that aren’t based in fact. Fox News doing the same is critical.

Tony Maglio contributed to this report.

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