Fox News sometimes has trouble reckoning with the MAGA beast it has so carefully nurtured. When then-host Megyn Kelly pressed Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in an August 2015 debate, for example, the resulting uproar cleaved the network. Daytime anchor Shepard Smith, who told the truth about Trump, left the network after clashing with anti-anti-Trump cheerleader Tucker Carlson.
Now there’s the case of “uncomfortable” Bret Baier, the top night news anchor at Fox News.
Two days after Election Day in 2020, Baier sent an email to colleagues expressing concern about the network’s early and decisive call to put Arizona’s 11 electoral college votes in the column of Democratic candidate Joe Biden. “This situation is getting uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. I keep having to defend this on air,” wrote Baier to Fox News President and Executive Editor Jay Wallace, according to “The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” a newly released book by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser.
The Fox News Decision Desk, wrote Baier, was “holding on for pride.” He also wrote, according to Baker and Glasser, that the Trump campaign was “pissed” about the situation. “It’s hurting us. The sooner we pull it — even if it gives us major egg — and we put it back in his column the better we are in my opinion.” As the book notes, Arizona was never in Trump’s column: Fox News and the Associated Press (AP) were just outliers in calling the state for Biden as early as election night.
As this blog explained at the time, it was no coincidence that Fox News and AP pulled the trigger on Arizona around the same time. The two organizations had entered into a partnership with NORC at the University of Chicago to generate data to drive election calls, though both outlets maintain independent decision desks. The system, they say, is an upgrade over exit polling. Other big-time election-night players rely on a separate data stream — and prominent outlets waited more than a week to call Arizona for Biden, days after they’d called the entire race for him.
The Fox News Decision Desk is one of the few remaining oases of credibility in the organization. It’s headed by Arnon Mishkin, an elections nerd who’s been on the beat for Fox News since the late 1990s; its work achieved glorious virality on election night 2012 when it called Ohio for incumbent President Barack Obama, prompting a famous on-air meltdown from pundit Karl Rove.
The pushback identified in Baier’s email was real. Mishkin himself apparently acknowledged as much on election night, when he appeared on air to defend the already-controversial call. “We made the correct call, and that’s why we made the correct call when we made it. I’m sorry,” said Mishkin.
In response to the Baker-Glasser revelations, Baier released this statement via a Fox News spokesperson:
The full context of the e-mail is not reported in this book. I never said the Trump campaign ‘was really pissed’ — that was from an external email that I referenced within my note. This was an email sent AFTER election night. In the immediate days following the election, the vote margins in Arizona narrowed significantly and I communicated these changes to our team along with what people on the ground were saying and predicting district by district. I wanted to analyze at what point (what vote margin) would we have to consider pulling the call for Biden. I also noted that I fully supported our decision desk’s call and would defend it on air.
That’s a whole lot of defense. Why not just release the email, Bret? (The Erik Wemple Blog asked Baier for the document but hasn’t heard back.) Fox News issued this statement: “Fox News made an election night call of historic magnitude and was first to do so. We stood by the call in the days that followed, it was proven correct, and other news organizations eventually joined us.”
That’s 100 percent accurate, though we can’t allow the network to leave the impression that it acted courageously throughout this episode. As Baker and Glasser note, Wallace overruled Mishkin on calling Nevada for Biden on Friday, Nov. 6. Doing so would have made Fox News the first network to declare that Biden had won the contest. A couple of months later, Fox News announced personnel changes in which two key staffers — Bill Sammon and Chris Stirewalt — left the organization. Sammon was “summarily fired,” according to the book (at the time, a network spokesperson confirmed his retirement); Stirewalt later wrote that he, too, was fired, though the network called it part of a “restructuring.”
The attempt by Trump world to contest and overturn the 2020 election assumed many guises, the most despicable of which include the Jan. 6 insurrection, legal attempts to overturn legitimately cast ballots and the innovation of “fake electors.” Merely pressuring Fox News to rescind its Arizona call, by comparison, was an innocuous exercise.
And one that a guy like Baier, you might suppose, would have the gumption to resist without sending a whiny email up the chain of command. Consider that this is a nationally prominent media figure, on the so-called news side of Fox News, with an annual salary of $12 million, according to Brian Stelter’s book “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.” We regret that this handsomely paid star felt “uncomfortable” in his job during the pivotal days following the 2020 election.
Journalism, though, is often “uncomfortable.” It’s “uncomfortable” to come face to face with someone you’ve been covering critically for months. It’s “uncomfortable” to slam your wife’s boss. It’s “uncomfortable” to cover wars, natural disasters and mass shootings.
Here’s what should be even more “uncomfortable”: revising the considered elections decisions of your colleagues to appease your core viewership.
Correction: A previous version of this post said that Fox News and AP entered a partnership with the University of Chicago. It has been amended to state that the partnership is with NORC at the University of Chicago.