Election Night From Hell

Election Night From Hell

As Fox News marks its tenth birthday, recall the fateful night in November 2000 that its election desk broke all the rules reporting the election of George W. Bush. Will Fox do it again this year?


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the vote count at the time of the projection showed the election was too close to call, and all the networks eventually rescinded their calls–but not before Al Gore had called Bush to concede.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.

I was with the co-leaders of the joint decision team for CBS and CNN, Warren Mitofsky and Joe Lenski. By the time Fox made its announcement, Mitofsky and Lenski were also considering calling the race, but they were constrained by the closeness of the count. Indeed, an hour earlier, when I asked Mitofsky why he didn’t call the Florida race for Bush, given Bush’s lead, he said to me, “Do you want to call the President of the United States on the basis of 30,000 votes? Right now Bush leads by 65,000 votes and at three in the morning he’ll likely have a 30,000-vote margin. Are you comfortable with that? I’m not. Vote counts are not 100 percent sure. Some end-of-night vote counts are off by at least one point…. The counts are reported by the media…and they make mistakes.” That “one point” potential error represented about 60,000 votes in Florida, and at 2:15, the most favorable projection suggested Bush might end up with about a 35,000 vote lead, barely half a percentage point. So when Fox made the call at 2:16 in the morning, the CBS/CNN decision team did not follow. Mitofsky said, “Fox has an agenda, don’t forget.” But a minute later, when someone in the decision room announced that NBC had made the call, Mitofsky immediately said, “We’ll call it, too!”

The ABC decision team did not want to make the call, not trusting the data. But according to John Blydenburgh, a consultant with the network that evening, a network executive overrode the decision team and also projected Bush the winner, in order to avoid looking foolish as the only network not to recognize Bush as the next President.

It’s clear from the events following Fox’s call that the networks all jumped onto the Bush bandwagon despite the closeness of the data, in a competitive rush not to be last, or at least not to look foolish. The official postelection report for CNN, prepared by outside reviewers, blasted the networks by noting that “On Election Day 2000, television news organizations staged a collective drag race on the crowded highway of democracy, recklessly endangering the electoral process, the political life of the country and their own credibility.” All of the networks deserve blame for their actions, but the Fox case is particularly interesting.

Many commentators expressed astonishment that Fox would hire a person so closely related to one of the two principal candidates to head its decision desk. Moreover, Ellis had explicitly recognized his own bias the year before, when he was a columnist for the Boston Globe. He explained in a July 3, 1999, op-ed column that he had to stop writing about the 2000 presidential campaign because “I am loyal to my cousin, Gov. George Bush. I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone outside my immediate family…. There is no way for you to know if I am telling you the truth about George W. Bush’s presidential campaign because in my case, my loyalty goes to him and not to you.”

This was an obvious and admittedly massive conflict of interest for Ellis, which Fox never acknowledged. Mitofsky, who invented exit polls in the 1960s and developed the election night projection system the networks were using that night, characterized Ellis’s actions–conferring with his cousins while heading the Fox decision desk–as “the most unprofessional election night work I could ever imagine. He had no business talking to the Bush brothers or to any other politician about what he was doing.” The decision teams were supposed to be analyzing data, not getting advice from politicians about when to call a race–and surely not from someone so closely related to one of the candidates.

At the Congressional hearing on February 14, 2001, when the networks were called to explain what happened on election night, the most notable testimony for its sheer cheek came from Fox’s president and CEO, Roger Ailes. In his prepared statement, he noted that “much ado” had been made about a column Ellis wrote in 1999 for the Boston Globe “where he stated in effect that his loyalty to then Governor George W. Bush would prevent him from writing further columns about politics.” Despite noting Ellis’s admitted conflict of interest, Ailes found no fault with it; rather, he seemed proud to declare that “we at Fox News do not discriminate against people because of their family connections.” He admitted he was aware that John Ellis was speaking to Jeb and George W. Bush on election night. “Obviously, through his family connections, Mr. Ellis has very good sources,” he wrote. “I do not see this as a fault or shortcoming of Mr. Ellis. Quite the contrary, I see this as a good journalist talking to his very high-level sources on election night.”

This is a stunning statement–the notion that the decision teams should actually be encouraged to seek information and advice from “high-level sources” (i.e., the candidates themselves!). It’s difficult to find a clearer example of conflict of interest than allowing Bush’s cousin to confer with Bush about when to call the election for Bush.

Despite Ailes’s bluster about Ellis’s being a “good journalist” on election night 2000, it appears that initially Fox did not know that Jeb Bush was the actual catalyst for Ellis’s projection of Bush as the Florida winner. Fox executives knew that Ellis was talking with George W. and Jeb Bush, but Ellis never admitted that he made the call because “Jebbie says we got it!” Instead, Ellis claimed that when he recommended the Florida call at 2:15 in the morning, it was on the basis of a “need/get” ratio that he had calculated, supposedly comparing how many votes Gore “needed” to close the gap and how many votes he would be able to “get.” The statistician sitting next to him that night was Cynthia Talkov, whom he referred to as his “statistical wizard.” She never saw him making calculations on the basis of some “need/get” ratio, and he never shared any such calculations with her–although no projection that night had been made without her explicit approval. She was the only person on the team who understood the statistical models in the VNS system, and the team members deferred to her judgment.

But after the election, Fox discovered what Ellis had done. In the conduct of an internal review, a Fox attorney interviewed Talkov, who described how Ellis had suggested calling Florida for Bush right after talking with his cousin and announcing to the decision team, “Jebbie says we got it!” Inga Parsons, Talkov’s attorney, who was part of the phone conversation, told me she has a “vivid recollection of a pregnant pause,” as though the information about Ellis’s call had stunned the Fox attorney into silence. Fox executives were interested in whether Ellis had violated the VNS contract by sharing information with the Bushes. The notion that the information might have gone in the other direction may not have been on their radar screen. After a few moments the conversation resumed, but the Fox attorney did not pursue the matter. Whether Ailes was ever informed about the account is unknown.

At the hearing, Ailes stressed that Fox’s internal investigation of election night 2000 had “found not one shred of evidence that Mr. Ellis revealed information to either or both of the Bush brothers which he should not have, or that he acted improperly or broke any rules or policies of either Fox News or VNS.” No reference was made about the real conflict of interest, which allowed one Bush brother essentially to project the other brother as the Florida winner.

Even on the issue of illegally sharing information with the Bush brothers, it’s difficult to take Ailes seriously when he claims to have found “not one shred of evidence” for such actions. Had he not read either Ellis’s article in Inside magazine, or The New Yorker article about Ellis? In the Inside article, Ellis said that at about 5:30 in the afternoon of election day, he took a smoke break and called “Governor Bush” (not specifying which governor), who asked Ellis: “Is it really this close?”

Ellis: “Yeah, it’s really close.”

Later, after the networks called Florida for Gore, Ellis got a call from Jeb Bush. “Are you sure?” Bush asked about the Fox projection.

Ellis: “Jeb, I’m sorry, I’m looking at a screenful of Gore.”

Bush: “But the polls haven’t closed in the panhandle.”

Ellis: “It’s not going to help.”

In an earlier interview with Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, Ellis seemed even more candid, freely admitting that he had called his cousins and that they had called him, so he could tell them what he was seeing on the VNS computer screens. Sometime after 6 PM, according to Mayer, Ellis received a call from the Bush brothers. “They were, like, ‘How we doin’?'” Ellis told Mayer. “I had to tell them it didn’t look good.” Later on it was Ellis who called his cousins, this time to give them good news. “Our projection shows that it is statistically impossible for Gore to win Florida,” Ellis said. “Their mood was up big time.” An hour later, Ellis again wanted to share VNS information with his cousins, this time to tell them he had just got a message on the computer screens that said the VNS numbers were wrong. “You gotta be kidding me,” George W. Bush said.

One might assume that Ellis’s several admissions that he related VNS data to his cousins would constitute at least one “shred” of evidence that Ailes says he was seeking–but maybe Ailes wasn’t accepting volunteered confessions as evidence.

Ailes partly justified Ellis’s conduct by declaring that two other members of the Fox decision team, John Gorman and Arnon Mishkin, “were speaking to high-level Democratic sources throughout the evening.” Neither was speaking to Gore, of course, nor to Gore’s direct family, but even if Gorman and Mishkin were doing that, it would not excuse or erase Ellis’s conflict of interest. It would mean only that Gorman and Mishkin were also engaged in unprofessional conduct involving a massive conflict of interest.

As the midterm elections approach, it is sobering to consider that the new de facto Fox decision team leader is John Gorman. And this time, the National Election Pool–formed in 2004 to replace the disgraced VNS–will provide vote count, analysis and projection data to the networks. Whether Gorman or his colleague, Arnon Mishkin, share consortium data on election night with the Democrats in violation of the networks’ contract, or whether the two decision team members solicit information from the Democrats, as Ailes and Ellis claimed they did in 2000, is unknown. Nor is it known if there are other Republicans on the team who engage in similar contacts with GOP Representatives. (Fox refused to allow me to talk with John Gorman about the network’s election night activities.) But the fact that the Fox network chief, Roger Ailes, lauds such partisan (“higher level”) contacts is not reassuring.

Indeed, Ailes’s refusal to acknowledge anything wrong with Ellis’s behavior on election night 2000, and instead to praise it, says a lot about Fox’s view of ethics and what the network has brought to the news profession.

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