Ten years ago this month, Fox News began broadcasting by touting itself as “fair and balanced.” In the intervening decade, the motto has become an emblem of Orwellian-speak, as the network again and again demonstrates that it is to the Bush Administration what Pravda was to the Soviet Union, or L’Osservatore Romano is to the Vatican.
But in November, Fox News celebrates another milestone–the sixth anniversary of its role in the miscalls of election night 2000, the debacle that prompted all of the networks to project George W. Bush the winner in Florida at 2:20 in the morning after the election, and thus the next President of the United States. In fact, the vote count at the time of the projection showed the election was too close to call, and all the networks eventually rescinded their calls–but not before Al Gore had called Bush to concede. Later, Gore called back to un-concede, but that “flip-flop” was leveraged by Republicans and conservative media to create a hostile political environment in Florida, which ultimately proved fatal to Gore’s efforts to get a full and honest hand recount in the state. A postelection analysis by a consortium of media outlets showed that had such a recount been conducted, Gore would have won Florida–and the presidency–by anywhere from 42 to 171 votes.
Fox’s role in the miscall was pernicious because it was prompted not by a careful analysis of vote data but by George Bush’s brother, Jeb Bush, who persuaded his cousin at Fox News, John Ellis, to make the call. Ellis was the head of the network’s election night decision team, the group responsible for analyzing election data provided to each network by the now-defunct Voter News Service (VNS), and for deciding whether the network should project a winner in each state. Earlier in the evening, all the networks had projected Gore the winner in Florida, but they retracted their projections within two hours. At the time, it was not clear that whoever won Florida would win the presidency, and little damage was done to either candidate by that miscall.
By 2:15 in the morning, however, the presidential race had boiled down to Florida, and the vote count at the time showed Bush leading Gore by about half a percentage point. By any reasonable standard, the networks should have held off making a projection. And at 2:15, none of the networks had made a call, though Fox was about to do so. Each network decision team was looking at the data provided by VNS, and while the vote appeared favorable to Bush, no one could be sure that by the end of the vote count, Bush would still prevail. In fact, a separate count by the Associated Press showed Bush’s margin declining precipitously, reaffirming that the election was simply too close to call.
In that context, John Ellis–who had just taken a call from his cousin Jeb Bush–excitedly announced to his decision team, “Jebbie says we got it! Jebbie says we got it!” A minute later, Fox projected George W. Bush the winner in Florida and the next President of the United States.
At the very moment that Fox made the call at Jeb Bush’s behest, Sheldon Gawiser, NBC’s decision team leader, was on the phone with Murray Edelman, VNS editorial director. Gawiser had not made up his mind to call the election, and wanted to discuss a possible call with Edelman as the person responsible for providing all of the election data. Edelman was stunned that NBC might call the race. A few days earlier, he had sent a memo to all of the networks, warning them that typically at the end of an election night there are large errors in the vote count, and recommending that the networks be cautious in making projections. When Gawiser suggested that NBC was considering a call for Bush, the first thing Edelman asked was, “Did you read my memo?” Unfortunately, Fox’s projection was announced just as this exchange took place, and Gawiser broke off the phone call with Edelman, saying, “Sorry, gotta go. Fox just called it.” A minute later, NBC projected Bush the winner in Florida and the next President of the United States.