Fired Fox News politics editor: Trump's ire at election night call led to 'panic'
The witness seemed to embrace the moment, offering answers with gusto.
Who won the November 2020 U.S. presidential elections? That was the question California lawmaker Zoe Lofgren asked Monday at the hearing of the House Select Committee on the January 6th attacks on Congress.
"Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., of the great state of Delaware" came the reply.
After November 7th, how likely was it for then-President Donald Trump to pull out a surprise victory?
"You're better off to play the Powerball," was the answer.
Asked about Fox News's projection of Biden as the winner of Arizona on Election Night, the network's former political director, Chris Stirewalt, testified, "Our poll in Arizona was beautiful, and it was doing just what we wanted it to do. And it was cooking up just right."
Stirewalt spoke to NPR Monday afternoon, just minutes after his testimony wrapped up. Ever the jaunty raconteur, he said the Arizona call made by Fox's decision desk — before any other U.S. television network — alarmed executives fearful of alienating Trump voters and angered his many allies within the network.
"We don't award any electoral votes. We don't count any ballots. We are some nerds in a room, and that's it," Stirewalt said in the interview. "We're just telling you what's going to happen. We're not making anything happen."
"They confused the television show with the real thing"
"And it showed to me how much television — the perceptions of events, of television as entertainment, news as entertainment and treating it like a sport - had really damaged the capacity of Americans to be good citizens in a republic because they confused the TV show with the real thing."
In some ways, Fox journalists were telling their viewers things they didn't want to hear. "Part of the problem, of course, was that there were opinion hosts on Fox who, for months and months and months, had been repeating the baseless claim that Trump was going to win the election for sure," Stirewalt said.
Stirewalt said he was iced from Fox's airwaves soon after his explanations of why Fox projected Arizona's election wins. Two months later, as Biden took office, Stirewalt was gone, along with roughly 15 colleagues.
Through a senior spokesperson, Fox News declined to comment for this story. The network has in the past attributed his departure to a typical restructuring after a big election. Its Washington Managing Editor, Bill Sammon, left at the same time, in what was termed a retirement.
Stirewalt offered a wry laugh about that.
"Fox lost the thread over time, but the old idea at Fox was a robust news division," Stirewalt said. "But for a lot of reasons, there was some panic."
Stirewalt is no stranger to conservative political circles: he was previously political editor for the right-of-center Washington Examiner.
"A furious, murderous kind of rage"
And he is no stranger to controversy over the vote. On Election Night in 2012, Republican Mitt Romney's campaign aides were enraged when Fox, along with other networks, called Ohio for then President Barack Obama. Its chief political analyst, Karl Rove, was incredulous. (Rove had also raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Republican candidates that year. The vast majority lost.) Then anchor Megyn Kelly turned it into great television by strolling back to Arnon Mishkin's team at the Fox decision desk to ask him about his numbers. They held up.
"What happened in 2020 was abnormal — a furious, murderous kind of rage," Stirewalt told NPR. He said he was taken aback by the vitriol that flowed toward Fox from Trump, his campaign officials, and core voters, many of whom made up Fox's core audience, simply because of that Election Night call. It gave running room to smaller Fox competitors to its right, such as Newsmax and One America News.
"Fox News should have been proud of the work we did, and we should have been rewarded, and we should have been lifted up," Stirewalt said in the interview. "And they should have defended the journalists who they hired to do a job."
Mishkin and Stirewalt came in for skeptical questioning from Fox's anchors and hosts on the air. That said, the network did not back down from its call despite intense pressure to do so, including on Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls the channel's parent corporation. (One Republican senator called for Fox to fire both Stirewalt and Mishkin. The latter remains at the network.)
Monday's testimony from Stirewalt, now politics editor for Nextar Media's NewsNation cable channel, gave ballast to what was clearly a key aim of the committee for the day.
"Don't pay attentions to what partisans say"
As the committee established, Trump was hearing from the sources that he should have trusted most that there was zero cause to claim victory or meaningful election sources: his own attorneys and campaign aides; then Attorney General William Barr; and Fox News, whose opinion stars counted among his closest advisers and biggest champions.
Further, what Stirewalt said made it clear that Fox stars were saying things on the air they knew to be untrue — about Trump's ability to challenge Biden's victories in court and the presence of voting fraud.
"Don't pay attention to what partisans say about things, usually. Because what else are they supposed to say, right?" Stirewalt asked. "Sean Hannity is a good example. He's a Republican. He's always going to tell you what's good for Republicans. And he's going to leave out what's bad for Republicans and focus on what's bad for Democrats. OK, fine. But you don't need to pay attention to that because you know what he's going to say."
Fox News largely skirted clear of talking about Stirewalt on Monday after his testimony, focusing instead on videotaped depositions of former Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien and other campaign advisers and attorneys.
"If there's one thing that I hate as a journalist, it is being the story," Stirewalt said in the interview. "I want to cover the story, not be the story. So I'm very happy that this little blip will soon be off the radar screen, and I can go back to looking for election outcomes like a truffle pig."
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