Aftermath of 2020 election left Fox News between Trump and the truth


In a new book about Donald Trump’s tenure in national politics, there is an observation crucial to understanding him and his relationship with Fox News. The book, by The New York Times’ Peter Baker and The New Yorker’s Susan Glasser, examines how Trump’s emergence in 2015 confused the network and its then-Emperor, Roger Ailes.

“What Ailes saw in Trump, what he has not seen in any other Republican politician in recent years,” Baker and Glasser write, “was someone who connected with Fox audiences even more than Fox did.”

This is undoubtedly true, as polls would later make clear. Trump’s skill in the 2016 Republican primary was that, as a native, he spoke the language of the angry right wing. Like her, he was a Fox News fan who was further marginalized by the likes of Breitbart. Trump made a regular appearance as a contributor on Fox & Friends before announcing his candidacy, and his ability to speak to Fox News audiences served him well in building a core base of political support after he did so. However, this wasn’t ideal for Fox News: Here, a platform was larger than theirs, competing for the same audience.

Thus, the network spent the four years of Trump’s presidency mostly repeating and amplifying the president’s antics and rhetoric that their base loved. Fox News Republicans became the beating heart of Trump’s support. The play worked pretty well … until Trump lost his re-election bid and demanded that his universe of loyalists pretend he hadn’t. Suddenly, the balancing act Fox News had mastered – keeping Trump supporters happy without falling into outright misinformation – became increasingly shaky.

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As Baker and Glasser report, the immediate post-election period forced Fox News executives and stars to choose between what the audience wanted searched to hear and what it necessary Listen. Reality, they write, has not always won this battle.

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It started when Fox News’ decision-making office called the state of Arizona for Joe Biden. This was an aggressive call by any measure. No other network joined them, considering the race too close to call. The Fox News team relied heavily on data and assumptions that were later found to be incorrect or inaccurate, including data from the Associated Press, which also made an early call. Fox News pundits predicted on election night that the votes weren’t there for Trump to close his deficit. He almost did.

The Fox News on-air talent wasn’t able to discuss the nuances of the numbers with the team that made the call, but Trump’s campaign team was. So they started working the phones, apparently contacting anyone on the network who would pick up. Baker and Glasser report that Fox News host Bret Baier was among those who heard from Trump’s team.

In an email to supervisors sent two days after the election, he reportedly wrote: “This situation is going to be uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. I have to constantly defend that on the air.”

“He accused the decision desk of ‘holding on out of pride,'” Baker and Glasser write, “added, ‘It hurts us. The sooner we pull it — even if it gives us big balls — and get it back in his column, I think the better off we are.'” As authors of the book note, Arizona couldn’t be “put back” in Trump’s column because they was never there at all.

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In a statement released Tuesday by a Fox News spokesman, Baier attempted to recontextualize the comments.

“In the immediate days after the election, Arizona voting scope tightened significantly, and I shared these changes with our team, along with what local people were saying and predicting from district to district,” the statement said. “I wanted to analyze at what point (what voting space) would we need to consider withdrawing the call for Biden. I also noted that I fully support our decision team’s call and would defend it on air.” (This does not conflict with the book’s reporting, as Glasser pointed out in a reply to the Washington Post.)

But it’s Baker and Glasser’s coverage of Fox executives that is more condemning of the network’s post-election efforts.

For example, they write that early in the morning after the election, the network’s CEO “recommended that Fox stop calling states until they are officially confirmed by the electoral authorities,” meaning the network would not be in the unfortunate position to do so to convey to his audience of Trump fans that their President had both lost and misled them about this reality.

Other top executives agreed with this strategy, although it was not implemented. Instead, the network was reportedly reluctant. When other networks called Nevada about Biden, Fox News President Jay Wallace prevented the network from following suit, Baker and Glasser write. With Arizona already backing Biden, adding Nevada to the Democrat total would make Fox News the first network in the country to call the election against Trump.

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Needless to say, news organizations shouldn’t work this way. Similarly, if Fox News was confident in his Arizona call, which was enough not to pull him back, it should have followed its decision team’s lead in calling Nevada and, with it, the election. But the post-election period has been stressful for the network, as Baker and Glasser note, as emerging networks have not bothered to repeat Trump’s untruths that bite them on their heels. (In a November 2020 interview with the New Yorker, the Newsmax CEO bluntly admitted that telling Trump’s base what they wanted to hear was good for his network’s business.)

With Trump’s diminished voice on the national stage, Fox News was under less pressure to bow to his rhetoric and grievances. It still, of course, recognizes the preferences of its viewers; When the network declined to broadcast the prime-time hearings being held by the House Select Committee investigating the Capitol riot, host Laura Ingraham attributed the decision to a desire to “serve our audience.”

But as 2024 approaches, Trump’s voice is growing louder. Fox News could once again find itself torn between what actually happened and what Trump and his supporters would have liked. And if post-election time in 2020 is any guide, what actually happened may not always be what ends up airing.

Aaron Blake contributed to this report.



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