Shortly before 5 p.m. yesterday, Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes assembled his network’s election team in a second floor conference room at Fox’s midtown headquarters to discuss the night’s coverage. He prepared them for the worst. “Guys,” he told them according to a source familiar with the exchange, “if things don’t go your way tonight, don’t go out there looking like someone ran over your dog.”
Six hours later, American Crossroads co-founder and Fox News contributor Karl Rove was on-camera seeming to ignore his boss’s orders. Shortly after 11 p.m., Bret Baier went on-camera to read a script written by Fox’s Washington managing editor Bill Sammon, based on an analysis by the network’s decision desk, announcing Ohio for Obama. “That’s the presidency, essentially,” Baier said.
Instantly, Fox phones lit up with angry phone calls and e-mails from the Romney campaign, who believed that the call was premature, since tallies in several Republican-leaning Southern counties hadn’t been been fully tabulated. “The Romney people were totally screaming that we’re totally wrong,” one Fox source said. “To various people, they were saying, ‘your decision team is wrong.’” According to a Fox insider, Rove had been in contact with the Romney people all night. After the Ohio call, Rove — whose super-PAC had spent as much as $300 million on the election, to little avail — took their complaints public, conducting an on-air primer on Ohio’s electoral math in disputing the call.
The episode “speaks for itself. It was live television,” said a Fox News spokesperson. “Karl was in touch with the Romney people after he and Joe Trippi became concerned the call might be premature,” said a Rove spokesperson. “It was then he found the Ohio Secretary of State website had roughly 7 percent more of the vote in and the two candidates separated first by 1,995 votes and then by 911.” Hovering behind the dispute was Rove’s history as George W. Bush’s strategist in two close elections: In 2000, Fox had called Florida for Al Gore early, and then was forced to rescind the call later. At 2:16 a.m., they again called the race, this time for George Bush — that call, too, they’d had to rescind. (Adding to the controversy, Bush’s cousin, John Ellis, was leading the team of statisticians that made the call.)
This time, it was the network divided against itself, and Fox News’ top producers held a meeting to adjudicate. The decision desk stood their ground. They knew how momentous the call was. Earlier in the night, according to a source, before making the call, Arnon Mishkin, who heads the decision desk, told Fox brass, “let’s remember this is Fox News calling Ohio. This will say something beyond Ohio going for Obama.” Fox brass told Mishkin to get the numbers right and ignore the politics: “If we think Ohio has gone Obama, we call Ohio,” said a Fox News executive.
With neither side backing down, senior producers had to find a way to split the difference. One idea was for two members of the decision team, Mishkin and Fox’s digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt, to go on camera with Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier to squelch the doubts over the call. But then it was decided that Kelly would walk through the office and interview the decision team in the conference room. “This is Fox News,” an insider said, “so anytime there’s a chance to show off Megyn Kelly’s legs they’ll go for it.” The decision desk were given a three-minute warning that Kelly would be showing up.
A squawk box links all the networks’ decision desks together. A voice at another channel watching the drama unfold at Fox piped over the intercom, “Hey Fox, do you know Megyn Kelly is coming to your office?”
In the end, Kelly interviewed Mishkin with Stirewalt looking on. By midnight, Rove reluctantly seemed to concede. But his rear guard action seemed like a moment he would rather forget. He had raised hundreds of millions of dollars as the co-founder of the Crossroads PAC and came up short. He never went to the decision desk to apologize.
After he left the set, he walked toward the elevators and looked over to the decision team and waved. This morning, he appeared on Fox & Friends; the episode never came up.
Jump to the 1:44 mark of this video to watch Rove argue the call and Kelly walk down to Fox’s decision desk: