“If we hadn’t called Arizona,” said Suzanne Scott, the network’s chief executive, according to a recording reviewed by The New York Times, “our ratings would have been bigger.”
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The News Corp building in New York displays images of Fox News personalities including Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, the pair that the network’s C.E.O. called “the face of the network”; Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.
WASHINGTON — A little more than a week after television networks called the 2020 presidential election for Joseph R. Biden Jr., top executives and anchors at Fox News held an after-action meeting to figure out how they had messed up.
Not because they had gotten the key call wrong — but because they had gotten it right. And they had gotten it right before anyone else.
Typically, it is a point of pride for a news network to be the first to project election winners. But Fox is no typical news network, and in the days following the 2020 vote, it was besieged with angry protests not only from President Donald J. Trump’s camp but from its own viewers because it had called the battleground state of Arizona for Mr. Biden. Never mind that the call was correct; Fox executives worried that they would lose viewers to hard-right competitors like Newsmax.
And so, on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, Suzanne Scott, the chief executive of Fox News Media, and Jay Wallace, the network’s president, convened a Zoom meeting for an extraordinary discussion with an unusual goal, according to a recording of the call reviewed by The New York Times: How to keep from angering the network’s conservative audience again by calling an election for a Democrat before the competition.
Maybe, the Fox executives mused, they should abandon the sophisticated new election-projecting system in which Fox had invested millions of dollars and revert to the slower, less accurate model. Or maybe they should base calls not solely on numbers but on how viewers might react. Or maybe they should delay calls, even if they were right, to keep the audience in suspense and boost viewership.
“Listen, it’s one of the sad realities: If we hadn’t called Arizona, those three or four days following Election Day, our ratings would have been bigger,” Ms. Scott said. “The mystery would have been still hanging out there.”
Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, the two main anchors, suggested it was not enough to call a state based on numerical calculations, the standard by which networks have made such determinations for generations, but that viewer reaction should be considered. “In a Trump environment,” Ms. MacCallum said, “the game is just very, very different.”
The conversation captured the sense of crisis enveloping Fox after the election and underscored its unique role in the conservative political ecosystem. The network’s conduct in this period has come under intense scrutiny in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems.
Court filings in recent days revealed that Fox executives and hosts considered fraud claims by the Trump camp to be “really crazy stuff,” as Rupert Murdoch, the head of the Fox media empire, put it, yet pushed them on air anyway. The recording of the Nov. 16 meeting adds further context to the atmosphere inside the network at that time, when executives were on the defensive because of their Arizona call and feared alienating Mr. Trump and his supporters.
In a statement on Saturday, the network said: “Fox News stood by the Arizona call despite intense scrutiny. Given the extremely narrow 0.3 percent margin and a new projection mechanism that no other network had, of course there would be a wide-ranging post-mortem surrounding the call and how it was executed no matter the candidates.”
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In the cross hairs now is Ms. Scott, who joined the network at its inception in 1996 as a programming assistant and worked her way up to become chief executive in 2018. Media analysts have speculated that she may take the fall; Mr. Murdoch testified in a deposition that executives who knowingly allowed lies to be broadcast “should be reprimanded, maybe got rid of.” But Fox later put out word that she was not in danger.
Ms. Scott was among the executives who grew alarmed after the network’s Decision Desk called Arizona for Mr. Biden at 11:20 p.m. on election night on Nov. 3, 2020, a projection that infuriated Mr. Trump and his aides because it was a swing state that could foreshadow the overall result. No other network called Arizona that night, although The Associated Press did several hours later, and the Fox journalists who made the call stood by their judgment.
At 8:30 the next morning, Ms. Scott suggested Fox not call any more states until certified by authorities, a formal process that could take days or weeks. She was talked out of that. But the next day, with Mr. Biden’s lead in Arizona narrowing, Mr. Baier noted that Mr. Trump’s campaign was angry and suggested reversing the call. “It’s hurting us,” he wrote Mr. Wallace and others in a previously reported email. “The sooner we pull it even if it gives us major egg. And put it back in his column. The better we are. In my opinion.”
ImageSuzanne Scott joined Fox News at its inception in 1996 as a programming assistant and worked her way up to become chief executive in 2018. Credit…Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images
Arizona had never been in Mr. Trump’s column, and the Decision Desk overseen by Bill Sammon, the managing editor for Washington, resisted giving it “back” to a candidate who was losing just to satisfy critics.
But on Friday night, Nov. 6, when Mr. Sammon’s team was ready to call Nevada for Mr. Biden, sealing his victory, Mr. Wallace refused to air it. “I’m not there yet since it’s for all the marbles — just a heavier burden than an individual state call,” Mr. Wallace wrote in a text message obtained by The Times.
Rather than be the first to call the election winner, Fox became the last. CNN declared Mr. Biden the victor the next day at 11:24 a.m., followed by the other networks. Fox did not concur until 11:40 a.m., some 14 hours after Mr. Sammon’s election team internally concluded the race was over.
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While Mr. Biden held onto Arizona by 10,000 votes, the explosive fallout from the Fox call panicked the network. Viewers erupted. Ratings fell. “I’ve never seen a reaction like this, to any media company,” Tucker Carlson told Ms. Scott in a Nov. 9 message released in a court filing. Ms. Scott complained to a colleague that Mr. Sammon did not understand “the impact to the brand and the arrogance in calling AZ” and it was his job “to protect the brand.”
On Nov. 16, Ms. Scott and Mr. Wallace convened the Zoom meeting to discuss the Arizona decision. Mr. Sammon and Arnon Mishkin, the director of the Decision Desk, were included. Chris Stirewalt, the political editor who had gone on air to defend the call, was not.
Ms. Scott invited Mr. Baier and Ms. MacCallum, “the face” of the network, as she called them, to describe the heat they were taking, according to the recording reviewed by The Times.
“We are still getting bombarded,” Mr. Baier said. “It became really hurtful.” He said projections were not enough to call a state when it would be so sensitive. “I know the statistics and the numbers, but there has to be, like, this other layer” so they could “think beyond, about the implications.”
Ms. MacCallum agreed: “There’s just obviously been a tremendous amount of backlash, which is, I think, more than any of us anticipated. And so there’s that layer between statistics and news judgment about timing that I think is a factor.” For “a loud faction of our viewership,” she said, the call was a blow.
Neither she nor Mr. Baier explained exactly what they meant by another “layer.” A person who was in the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions said on Saturday that Mr. Baier had been talking about process because he was upset the Decision Desk had made the Arizona call without letting the anchors know first.
Fox reached its call earlier than other networks because of the cutting-edge system that it developed after the 2016 election, a system tested during the 2018 midterm elections with great success — Fox projected that Democrats would capture the House before its competitors. But now Mr. Wallace was having second thoughts.
“We created a new mousetrap,” he said. But he asked, “Was the mousetrap too good?” He added: “Part of me is like: Oh, should we have been more conservative and should we have stuck with N.E.P.,” the National Election Pool used by other networks. “Would that have changed things? Would there still be this ire?”
Mr. Mishkin acknowledged that the Arizona call seemed “premature” but noted that “it did land correctly” and that Fox rightly made clear it was “a dogfight in the Electoral College.” Mr. Sammon stood by the call. “If I may defend the Decision Desk for a moment, they got all 50 states right,” he said. “We called Arizona. It was a good call. It held up.”
Ms. Scott pressed Mr. Sammon to admit that Arizona “became much closer than even you anticipated it becoming.”
He pushed back. “From a statistical standpoint,” he said, “I literally never worried about the Arizona call. From a lot of other standpoints it was very painful for reasons that we’re all aware of. But statistically, I really was very confident in that call. That’s just the truth.”
Ms. Scott agreed it was important to be right. “But I think we’re living in a new world in a sense, where half of the voting population doesn’t believe in big corporations, big tech, big media,” she said. “There’s a lack of trust. And when they feel like things are being done behind closed doors in rooms that they can’t understand, it exacerbates the emotion and how they feel about the process.”
Tom Lowell, the managing editor for news, said Fox had been left “as the canary in this nasty coal mine,” suggesting other networks had deliberately delayed calls out of malice. “I think some outlets willfully held back calls that they probably could have made to watch us twist in the wind,” he said.
ImageAn early voting venue in Arizona. Fox News was the first to call the state for Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2020, thanks to its new multimillion-dollar election-projecting system.Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times
Ms. Scott asserted that CNN had delayed to hold viewer attention. “CNN historically I think has always been late because — purely for ratings,” she said. “And I think you have to ask yourself, is that a good enough reason? Trust, public trust, viewership, I mean there’s different parameters.”
She added that she was merely “raising the questions” about holding back calls. “There is a philosophy around that.” (Matt Dornic, a CNN spokesman, on Saturday denied holding back calls for ratings, saying its journalists “make calls as soon as we’re confident they’re right.”)
The Arizona dispute was not an abstract discussion. Georgia would soon hold runoff elections for two Senate seats that would determine control of the chamber. The question was raised about how to call those races given that Republicans seemed favored to win.
“If we’re going to be first to call the Senate for G.O.P. control, that’s OK too,” Mr. Baier said, prompting awkward laughs. (The person in the meeting said Mr. Baier was joking.)
What no one said at the meeting was that Ms. Scott would not let Mr. Sammon’s team risk the network’s brand again. She decided to push out Mr. Sammon and Mr. Stirewalt, but fearing criticism for firing journalists who had gotten the call right, opted to wait until after Georgia.
Mr. Murdoch was not keen on waiting. On Nov. 20, four days after the Zoom meeting, according to documents filed by Dominion, he told Ms. Scott, “Maybe best to let Bill go right away,” which would “be a big message with Trump people.”
Mr. Sammon, who had called every election correctly over 12 years at Fox and had just been offered a new three-year contract, was told that same day that his contract would not be renewed after all. He heard not from Fox but from his lawyer, Robert Barnett. Mr. Stirewalt was out too.
Fox would, in the end, wait until after Georgia to announce the purge, without attributing it to the Arizona call. Mr. Sammon, who negotiated a severance package, would call his departure a “retirement,” while Stirewalt’s dismissal was characterized as a “restructuring.”
Three weeks later, Fox announced a new multiyear contract extension for Ms. Scott.