Nothing could balance out the journalistic embarrassment of Fox News Channel star Sean Hannity appearing at an onstage love fest with President Trump this week at a Missouri campaign rally.
But the network’s “decision desk” valiantly gestured in that direction on Tuesday night when it made an early prediction that the House would flip to the Democrats.
It was a stunning moment.
Coming just after 9:30 p.m., the bold call blew election observers’ minds.
For the next 45 minutes or so — an eon in election night time — no other news organization backed up Fox. And it wasn’t until 11 p.m. that CNN made its own similar decision.
After about half an hour of that special kind of loneliness, Fox’s politics editor came on the set to talk about it.
“Why are we making that call?” anchor Bret Baier asked Chris Stirewalt.
“We are just that good,” was Stirewalt’s confident reply.
The call, of course, turned out to be right — and it was a triumph for a network that had had a terrible week from a journalistic perspective.
Only a day before, Fox brass had issued a statement lightly rebuking Hannity and his colleague Jeanine Pirro for what it — too tepidly — called the distraction of their appearing on the rally stage.
It was far worse than a distraction. For any other news organization, it would have been a fireable offense.
But Fox plays by its own rules, and as The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple memorably put it, “Sean Hannity owns Fox News.”
The decision desk’s call made me think that somewhere — under all its appalling propaganda and conspiracy peddling — a beating heart of news is still pumping away, however wanly, at Fox.
The problem is that Fox has done itself so much harm by letting Hannity and its other fearmongering pundits run wild that even its best work immediately drew howls of disbelief and distrust. It’s the network that cried wolf.
And so, shortly after the call was made, Twitter erupted with conspiracy theories: That Fox was going out on this limb for cynical political purposes: to discourage Democrats who hadn’t voted from bothering to do so.
But that wasn’t the case.
It was just good mechanics — and plenty of confidence — from the team that had set up a new voter analysis system, which uses a new approach to exit polls.
And it stood in sharp contrast to what Peter Baker of the New York Times described at the Missouri rally: that, at least on Monday night, “the fusion of president and network seemed complete.”
As the rally began, he wrote, White House communication czar Bill Shine (a former top executive at Fox) and Hannity were seen high-fiving each other.
And onstage, in perhaps the lowest moment, Hannity repeated Trump’s refrain: “By the way, all those people in the back are fake news.”
Among those people in the back were a Fox News crew and correspondent Kristin Fisher.
Hannity later explained that of course he didn’t mean to include his colleagues in his insult: It was just everyone else in the media he was talking about.
The cable network’s news team — reportedly mortified by Hannity’s antics — deserves credit for claiming Tuesday’s most memorable media moment.
It doesn’t begin to make up for the worst of Fox.
But it suggests that there’s still life in the battered entity that Fox wants you to think is a news network.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan