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Opinion Arizona calls vindicate Fox News Decision Desk

Fox News anchors Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier. (Fox News) (ALEXANDER DRAGO/Fox News)
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Fox News was right, after all.

Late Thursday, The Post, the New York Times, NBC News and CNN reported that President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris had won Arizona — more than a week after Fox News and the Associated Press made the same call on election night. The decision prompted hardly a ripple on the news front, considering that the networks and the AP had called the race for the Biden-Harris ticket Saturday morning. Other, more pressing stories right now include President Trump’s apparent boycott of his official duties and his ongoing efforts to delegitimize the election.

Yet this is a media story worth examining for what it says about the relationship between Fox News and the fan base that it shares with President Trump. At 11:20 p.m. on election night, Fox News’s Decision Desk jumped out ahead of the competition and placed Arizona — and its 11 electoral college votes — in the Biden-Harris column. The backlash from Trumpers was immediate and furious. They attacked again and again — protesting rhetorically, online and even in person in Arizona itself.

And they were wrong. A sweeter and more resounding moment of media vindication doesn’t come readily to mind.

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The victory party for this particular instance of quantitative political wisdom is off-limits to Fox News opinion hosts such as Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. They’re pro-Trump propagandists, allergic to fact and fairness, who undermined confidence in the election (as our colleague Greg Sargent pointed out). Hannity last Thursday night claimed that “any” call on Arizona was “premature" — marking another occasion that Hannity contradicted news-side colleagues trying to get the story right. That’s business as usual in Fox News’s opinion precincts, which for five years have been shoving aside ethics and decency to promote Trump’s talking points.

The news division at Fox, however, has had some crevices where integrity is permissible. A nice example is the Fox News Brain Room, a research unit that produced the famous dossier on Ukraine that busted Hannity for laundering pro-Trump talking points about the most egregious scandal of his administration. The Brain Room, to the consternation of the Erik Wemple Blog, was gutted in a recent restructuring. There’s also the Fox News polling unit, a respected group that has long adhered to industry standard methodologies (which are, again, coming under fire this election cycle).

And then there’s the Fox News Decision Desk, a redoubt of quantitative-oriented political fiends who make some of the network’s most consequential decisions. They share office space in the network’s “nerdquarium,” which is essentially quarantined from the rest of the organization. The Decision Desk’s director is Arnon Mishkin, a registered Democrat who has been analyzing elections for Fox News since the late 1990s and took over the decision desk in 2008. The operation took a turn in the limelight on election night 2012, when it called Ohio for President Barack Obama, provoking on-air gripes from analyst Karl Rove. The decision desk stood firm, and prevailed.

The 2012 episode felt quaint and low-stakes when compared with last week’s uproar over Arizona. At the time that Mishkin & Co. made their call, Biden hadn’t expanded the electoral map Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Trump, meanwhile, took Florida and, again, defied polls showing Biden with big leads in battleground states.

So the call jarred the Trump campaign. A discrepancy surfaced within major media organizations: Here was Fox News, a reliably pro-Trump network calling a key state against the president, while the “liberal” media — newspapers such as the New York Times and The Post, plus the major broadcasters — clung to the mantra of modern election night journalism: Proceed with caution. Fox News and the mainstream media weren’t adhering to their prescribed roles in American politics. “What is going on in that network?” asked voices on the right.

That night, Fox News brought on Mishkin to answer that question. Anchor Bret Baier sought assurance that Mishkin was “100 percent sure” given what Baier described as “incoming” backlash against the network. “We made the correct call, and that’s why we made the correct call when we made it. I’m sorry,” responded Mishkin.

The Associated Press called Arizona for Biden a few hours after Fox News. There’s a reason that these two outlets reached the same call: AP and Fox News operate independent decision desks, though they participate in a partnership with the University of Chicago to furnish data for election calls. Fox News calls its gizmo the Fox News Voter Analysis (FNVA), whose methodology page explains the level of rigor that goes into the product: “The FNVA survey encompasses interviews with an estimated 110,000 registered voters and is conducted Oct. 26 to Nov. 3, and continues through the end of voting on Election Day,” it notes. “Both voters and nonvoters are interviewed to provide a full picture of the election, including why some Americans voted while others stayed at home.” AP has what it calls VoteCast, a product that it says is an improvement over exit polls.

Meanwhile, the alphabet soup networks — ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, CNN — share data under the National Election Pool and rely on Edison Research, which also called Arizona for Biden on Thursday night. (The Post also relies on Edison, so waited until Thursday night to report that Biden had flipped Arizona.) With 16,000 votes left to be counted, Biden leads by 11,000 votes, which is enough to carry him to the conclusion, according to these outlets and the independent Decision Desk HQ.

Whatever the data sources and methodologies, the right wasn’t cool with the work of the Fox News Decision Desk. Characterizing all the mayhem that stemmed from the Fox News call on Arizona requires bullet points:

· The Trump campaign communications director attacked the call on Fox News’s airwaves:

· Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis blasted the network: “For Fox to be so resistant to calling Florida and yet jumping the gun on Arizona, I just thought was inexplicable. I don’t think that that was done without some type of motive, whether it’s ratings, whether it’s something else.”

· Trump campaign senior adviser Jason Miller hammered Fox News via phone, according to the New York Times, and on Twitter:

· Jared Kushner, a top Trump adviser, was “in touch” with News Corp Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch, also according to the Times.

· Pro-Trump protesters last Wednesday night in Phoenix chanted “Shame on Fox,” according to Times correspondent Simon Romero.

· The Arizona Republican Party demanded the network retract its call.

The freakout was so complete, so over-the-top that a novice in American civics might have supposed that Fox News was a government entity entrusted with counting the votes. In reality, a mind-melded group of people who didn’t know what they were talking about attacked a group who did know what they were talking about.

Just weeks after then-candidate Donald Trump kicked off his campaign in June 2015, he tangled with then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s tough questions in a primary debate. From that point onward, Trump thrived on the rhetoric of Hannity and his gang while slamming the parts of Fox News that dared to tell the truth in defiance of him. That conflict forms the heart of CNN host Brian Stelter’s 2020 book “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.”

In retrospect, the attack on the Fox News Decision Desk merely extends Trump world’s record of bombarding rigor and expertise. FNVA’s methodology page outlines the national and state surveys, sampling and weighting considerations and more. It’s just the sort of process for which a guy like Trump has no respect or patience. We’ll wait to see whether all those folks demanding retractions of Fox News’s Decision Desk retract their demands.

Arnon Mishkin is probably the happiest man in America right now.

Through his tweets, his interviews and his bullying, Trump has expressed a sense of entitlement to sycophantic treatment by Fox News. To a large extent, he has succeeded. It’s tempting to believe that this dynamic will wane in a post-Trump world. It won’t, however: Trump and his followers appear to be morphing into an American permanent lying class, and, once out of government, they’ll have even more time to hassle the media. Beware, journalists.

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