Earlier this week, as the electoral math suggested the prospects of a second Trump term were dwindling, Fox News reportedly distributed a memo directing its on-air staff not to refer to Joe Biden as the president-elect, and to avoid using any “whizbang graphics” with the Democratic candidate’s new title after the network’s decision desk called the race in his favor.
But when the call was finally made just before noon on Saturday, the term, employed sparingly by news anchor Bret Baier on Friday, quickly came into widespread use: “The path is clear for the new president-elect,” said anchor Martha MacCallum, in the announcement of Fox News’ call for Joe Biden. (Fox News has stated that there have been no network-wide memos or editorial guidance regarding the use of the term.) Soon after, reporter Peter Doocy corrected himself on the winner’s new title: “Sorry, the former VP — the president-elect, right?”
The timing of the call — a Saturday morning after an agonizing week of waiting and delays — was pivotal to how the president’s favorite network treated the initial news of his loss. Throughout the week, Fox News’ wildly popular nighttime opinion hosts/providers of “non-literal commentary” have backed the president’s efforts to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, but the network’s news team has played the outcome straight, as is the norm in their studio.
On Thursday night, several Fox News opinion hosts amplified the president’s baseless allegations that Democrats were “trying to rig an election.” Sean Hannity claimed that “nobody can testify to the legitimacy” of the count in Pennsylvania, called for a “do-over,” and suggested that the state’s Republican legislature invalidate the results. On Saturday morning, anchors like Chris Wallace went the other direction, detailing why Trump campaign lawsuits seeking to replace poll watchers with their own ballot counters are likely to fail. Wallace described the legal challenges as “lawsuits in pursuit of any evidence” that won’t be able to stand up in court without evidence of “tens of thousands” of fraudulent ballots. “We’ve seen no sign of that,” Wallace noted. Andrew McCarthy, a former assistant United States attorney and a columnist for the National Review, added that it’s hard to convince Americans of a Democratic “scheme” to rig the election at the top of the ballot when the party lost seats in the House and failed in their expensive attempts to flip the Senate. Perhaps most damningly, in the hours after the race was called for Biden, the network hosted two Republican legislators from Pennsylvania who denied that there were any concerns about voter fraud in their state.
It’s unclear how Fox News’ election week coverage will affect its relationship with a lame-duck president who has harbored aspirations of helming his own media network. On Election Night, the Trump camp was reportedly furious with Fox News because its decision desk was one of only two outlets (the other was the AP) to call Arizona for Biden. Fox was not among the first outlets to call Pennsylvania for Biden on Saturday; another early call probably would have created an awkward situation for the network’s political guests and further incensed its audience at 1600 Pennsylvania.
The Fox News team’s straightforward coverage of Biden’s victory, and its decision to cast doubt on the president’s baseless claims of fraud, could put more space between Trump and what was once his favorite TV channel — but perhaps it’s too early to call the demise of their relationship. On Saturday afternoon, Fox News featured a celebratory moment from contributor and former Democratic National Committee Chair Donna Brazile. Reflecting on the election of Kamala Harris — the first woman, the first Black person, and the first person of South Asian descent to ascend to the vice-presidency — Brazile was overcome with emotion. “It’s been a long time coming,” she said. Just a short time later, political commentator Dana Perino offered a preview of the network’s coverage of the coming Senate runoffs in Georgia, noting that Republicans’ message will be that the “Senate is the last defense to stop socialism in America.”
This post has been updated to reflect that Fox News has stated there was no editorial guidance this week regarding the use of the title “president-elect.”