In yet another bizarre twist to an already surreal campaign, the head of Fox News's Election Night decision desk--who recommended calling Florida, and the election, for George W. Bush--turns out to be Bush's first cousin.
Even as he was leading the Fox decision desk that night, John Ellis was also on the phone with his cousins--"Jebbie," the governor of Florida, and the presidential candidate himself--giving them updated assessments of the vote count.
Ellis's projection was crucial because Fox News Channel put Florida in the W. column at 2:16 a.m.--followed by NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC within four minutes. That decision, which turned out to be wrong and was retracted by the embarrassed networks less than two hours later, created the impression that Bush had "won" the White House.
Which is why media circles were buzzing yesterday with the question of why Fox had installed a Bush relative in such a sensitive post.
"Appearance of impropriety?" asks Fox Vice President John Moody, who approved Ellis's recommendation to call Florida for Bush. "I don't think there's anything improper about it as long as he doesn't behave improperly, and I have no evidence he did. . . . John has always conducted himself in an extremely professional manner."
But Moody admits that Ellis's Election Night conversations with the cousins "would cause concern."
Ellis--whose mother, Nancy Ellis, is the sister of former president George Bush--boasted to the New Yorker that "everyone followed us." He also said the morning after the election that "Jebbie'll be calling me like eight thousand times a day." Ellis did not respond to an interview request yesterday.
Ellis's support for his cousin was hardly a secret. He wrote in The Washington Post's Outlook section nine days ago that the Texas governor is "smart, engaging, enormously energetic, possessed of dynamic leadership skills, funny, wry [and] optimistic," as opposed to "the morally berserk universe of the Clintons."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said: "The notion that you'd have the cousin of one presidential candidate . . . in a position to call a state is unthinkable. Fox's call precipitated all the other networks' calls. That call--wrong, unnecessary, misguided, foolish--has helped create a sense that this election went to Bush, was pulled back and he is waiting to be restored."
Critics say the Ellis connection will reinforce Fox's reputation as a conservative network whose anchors include Tony Snow, a former Bush White House staffer, and such commentators as Newt Gingrich. Fox maintains it merely provides a balanced alternative to the liberal networks. But, says Rosenstiel, "the marketing slogan 'We report, you decide' is obliterated by the fact that one candidate's first cousin is actually deciding, and then they report."
Marvin Kalb, Washington executive director of Harvard's Shorenstein press center, calls Ellis "a fine writer and columnist, and he's always sensitive about his relationship with his first cousin. His mother is very, very close with former president Bush. Therefore I am puzzled as to why he'd put himself in a position where he would seem to be the one making the call for his cousin. It clearly conveys the wrong impression."
As a Boston Globe columnist last year, Ellis wrote after some reader complaints: "I am loyal to my cousin. . . . I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone else outside my immediate family. That being the case, it is not possible for me to continue writing columns about the 2000 presidential campaign."
Ellis worked for NBC News as a producer and researcher in the political unit from 1978 through March 1989, soon after President Bush took office. Fox says it hired Ellis this year for work during the primaries and on Election Night. He also worked for Fox in 1998 when, Moody says, he called George Bush's reelection in Texas (though that was a landslide).
Ellis, who lives in Irvington, N.Y., was among those briefing Fox News President Roger Ailes last Tuesday night, but he was not a total Bush loyalist. At 7:52 p.m., Fox called Florida for Al Gore based on Ellis's recommendation, though Fox was not the first to make that projection. After Fox's report, according to the New Yorker, Jeb Bush called and asked Ellis: "Are you sure?"
The Gore call, based heavily on exit polls from Voter News Service, also turned out to be wrong and was retracted by the networks two hours later.
At 2 a.m., Ellis called his cousins to say it was "statistically impossible" for Gore to win Florida. "Their mood was up, big-time," Ellis told the New Yorker's Jane Mayer. "It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth--me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other the president-elect. Now that was cool."
But it was decidedly uncool to some Fox staffers, angry at what they see as Ellis exaggerating his role. Some are calling him "John 'Alexander Haig' Ellis," declaring himself to be in charge.
Whatever the Yale graduate's job description, it remains unclear why a television network allowed him to call the election for his cousin.
"You factor that in to everything else, but John is a professional," Moody says. "It would be as strange not to hire him because of who he's related to as to hire him especially because of who he's related to."