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Top Fox News managers depart amid Murdoch’s concerns over controversial Arizona election night projection

Fox News co-founder Rupert Murdoch, shown in 2017, is said to have been concerned about audience reaction to Fox News’s early election night call of Joe Biden’s victory in Arizona. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
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The Fox News executive who oversaw its election night “decision desk” is retiring at the end of the month, a move due in part to what Rupert Murdoch and other top network leaders viewed as a mishandling of the network’s early and controversial Arizona projection for Joe Biden.

Bill Sammon, 62, Fox News Channel’s senior vice president and managing editor in Washington, told staffers Monday morning about his planned retirement. His role will be absorbed by existing editorial staff members. A spokesperson declined to comment on the reason for his retirement.

Sammon previously worked as a White House correspondent for the Washington Times before joining Fox in 2009.

His announcement came as Fox laid off nearly 20 staffers Tuesday, including Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt, who worked on the decision desk with Sammon. Fox declined to comment specifically on Stirewalt, citing employee confidentiality. His departure shocked many inside the building who bemoaned the loss of a respected Washington voice at a time when the conservative-leaning network is navigating its future without President Trump in office.

In response to The Washington Post’s questions about the layoffs, a network spokesperson issued a statement saying that Fox News’s digital arm had “realigned its business and reporting structure to meet the demands of this new era” in the aftermath of the 2020 election cycle. “We are confident these changes will ensure the platform continues to deliver breakthrough reporting and insightful analysis surrounding major issues, both stateside and abroad.”

Trump campaign was livid when Fox News called Arizona for Biden — and tensions boiled over on-air

Stirewalt, a regular on-air presence, defended Fox’s election night projections after they came under question. “Arizona is doing just what we expected it to do, and we remain serene and pristine,” he said after the network made its call — the first strong indicator that Trump’s reelection hopes were imperiled after an evening of otherwise encouraging early results for the GOP. The Fox call enraged the Trump campaign and altered the narrative of election night media coverage.

While it ultimately proved to be correct, it led to several days of anxiety for Fox, as Biden’s margin over Trump in Arizona continued to narrow during a vote count slowed by the large number of mail-in ballots this year, and other media organizations held off on a decision.

Fox projected Biden’s win in Arizona at 11:20 p.m. on election night when only 73 percent of the vote had been reported. Yet the news was conveyed with little fanfare or preparation for the network’s on-air staff. No announcement was made until anchor Bill Hemmer, reviewing the latest status of an electoral map that was looking positive for Trump, glanced at the southwest, where the decision desk had left its yellow check mark on Arizona awarding the state to Biden.

Fox News was unequivocal on Nov. 7 about President-elect Joe Biden’s victory, but some hosts and guests were eager to spin it. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump allies publicly voiced their displeasure with the network call, while others attempted to pressure Fox to abandon it. Even some of Fox’s opinion hosts cast doubt on the projection.

The Arizona call became a flash point among Trump supporters, some of whom threatened to abandon the network. Indeed, as the president continued his baseless attacks on the election results, smaller outlets such as Newsmax cornered the market on the story and saw big increases in their audience.

At Fox News, a post-election shake-up brings more opinion at the expense of news

Murdoch, Fox News’s co-founder, has told colleagues that the way Fox handled the Arizona call caused reputational damage and cemented the view among some Trump supporters that the network is aligned against him. Even though Fox’s projection ended up being accurate, Murdoch has fretted that it was handled poorly.

Fox recently shook up its evening lineup, replacing former 7 p.m. news anchor Martha MacCallum with a rotating cast of opinion hosts. The move came as Fox’s ratings in that time slot had been outstripped by rivals.

While the decision desk is run by a contractor, Arnon Mishkin, who handled the statistical modeling of the desk, it fell to Sammon to determine editorially when Fox was ready to make its projection on air.

It was Sammon’s role that raised eyebrows in the aftermath of the call, Fox staffers told The Post. But it was Stirewalt’s dismissal that caused more consternation in the building, they said. “A major overreaction to Trump and the audience freakout,” said one staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

Murdoch, whose family controls Fox’s parent company, has been taking a more active interest in its programming in the wake of the election. He was involved in the decision to move MacCallum and is said to be advocating for larger changes as the network navigates the Biden era. A Murdoch spokesperson did not return emails seeking comment.