A Blue Era Dawns at Fox News
Now more than ever, Fox News Channel feels like TV's right place at the right time
By Marisa Guthrie -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/10/2008 2:00:00 AM
Related: Complete Election 2008 coverage
Check out B&C's exclusive photo gallery from behind-the scenes at Fox News on election night.
Maybe it did all come down to Ohio—again. At least that's what it felt like at the Fox News Channel studios on Election Night.
Brit Hume, FNC's droll political anchor and D.C. managing editor, and Karl Rove, infamous Republican operative, left their anchor seats for a standup in front of FNC's giant touch screen. At 9:18 p.m., in the middle of Rove's deconstruction of precinct data, Hume broke in: “Guess what, Karl? The state of Ohio has gone to Barack Obama.”
With Pennsylvania called for Obama at 8:29 p.m., a second Rust Belt battleground state falling to the Democrat delivered the deathblow to John McCain.
“It will be very difficult for [McCain] to get to 270,” said Hume in one of the classic understatements of the evening.
The woman manning camera 1 quietly clapped. “It's over,” said a soundman to no one in particular, a gleeful half-grin covering his face.
Obama's historic march to victory had begun. And here in the campaign-central offices of Fox News, on this most long-awaited night, one could also sense the start of a new era at the network. Change was coming to FNC—and contrary to any knee-jerk notions, it was not necessarily unwelcome.
Fox News' brand of right-wing punditry, exemplified by Bill O'Reilly (its most-watched personality) and Sean Hannity and soon by Glenn Beck, will thrive in an opposition administration. The O'Reilly Factor and Hannity's America achieved record ratings during the bruising political campaign. O'Reilly's interview with Obama in September was the most watched installment in Factor's history, attracting 6.6 million viewers. The Obama mandate—and the path that led to it—has if anything solidified FNC's own mandate to continue offering the conservative faithful an outlet for their perturbation. Misery loves company.
Contrarily, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann and newly crowned liberal darling Rachel Maddow, who is currently topping CNN's Larry King, may have a tougher time keeping up their dudgeon—and ratings—during an Obama administration.
For now, there'll be some understandable letdown—even exhaustion—following all the campaign excitement, as the wait continues until the transfer of power. But will the news side of Fox News face an apathetic audience, compounded by being on the losing end of a national election?
“There may be certain elements of our audience that turn away between now and the inauguration,” says Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News. “I think cable numbers overall will drop, although there is a fascination with Obama.”
And part of that fascination will now come in the daunting challenges his administration will face: two wars, a financial crisis, soaring national debt, crumbling domestic infrastructure, failing schools. All of which should keep the hyperbolic news cycle spinning almost as fast as it has during the runup to the election. Historically, the dawning of a new administration brings a renewed level of scrutiny from the media and interest from viewers—something Ailes is looking forward to.
“I remember when Bill Clinton took over and within a very short time he had to get rid of a couple of appointees,” he says, referring to Zoë Baird and Lani Guinier. “And then he got into gays in the military, and suddenly issues became critical and our ratings started to climb back up. I expect a dip over the next couple of months and then a big return to our numbers in late January, early February.”
Obama's narrative of unity and his desire to ensure the continuity of that narrative will make him a most welcome presence for the network, whether as friend or foil. His message has already made him one of the most accessible politicians in modern history.
“I think an Obama administration is going to want to reach out to viewers who have gotten used to the Fox News habit,” said John Moody, executive VP of news at Fox News Channel, outside the Election Night set.
“Look, I think Obama is an absolutely incredible politician. He's probably a once-in-a-lifetime politician and that means he's smart enough to know that, despite his prescient 2004 speech [at the Democratic National Convention], there are red voters and blue voters. And he wants to reach out and get the red ones, too.
“He's done O'Reilly, for goodness' sake,” Moody added with a smile. “[That] certainly shows more guts than I have.”
Live From New York, It's FNC on Election Night
“Quiet! Quiet on the set,” Hume yells. “I love to say that. It makes me feel powerful.”
It is the top of the 6 p.m. hour on Election Night at FNC's New York studios. Thundering music begins to play over the Fox News Election HQ open. Rove, sitting in his chair on the far right of the set in front of camera 4, begins to bump back and forth to the beat.
“This is Election Night,” Hume thunders. “I don't want anyone having any fun tonight. No merriment whatsoever. We're all going to be faking it all night.”
In the long days leading up to Nov. 4, Fox News pundits (O'Reilly, Hannity) and analysts (Dick Morris, Newt Gingrich, Rove) have been talking up a “tightening in the polls.” But on this night, no one doubts that reality will intervene. And at a meeting before the start of the network's election coverage, the talk is about how early the race will be called.
“[Obama] should have a pretty comfortable evening,” offers Moody in an understated aside.
It's 7 p.m.; John McCain may have an early lead with Kentucky's eight Electoral College votes compared to Vermont's three for Obama, but no one is delusional enough to think it will last.
“McCain went for a two-point conversion and Obama kicked a field goal,” jokes Chris Wallace.
Behind Wallace, an enormous digital clock counts down poll closings. Bill Hemmer is stationed in the back of the studio with his touch screen Electoral College map, otherwise known as the “Bill Board.” Megyn Kelly, dressed in a snugly tailored black skirt and jacket and red peep-toe stilettos, presides over the giant Election Night board, called the Launch Pad, on the left side of the studio.
“What else can we do?” Kelly asks. “I want to show off that board.”
Calls her producer: “I've got a few more tricks up my sleeve.”
Like its staunch cable competition, Fox News has festooned its coverage with all manner of technological extras. Kelly conjures bar graphs and pie charts, deconstructing voter socioeconomic and demographic breakdown (mostly) at the touch of a finger, although there are occasional glitches as data loads slowly or not at all.
“We were rehearsing right up until the last minute,” Ailes says. “I always kid the techs and say look, you gotta understand this stuff comes down to one plug in the wall. Don't kick that plug out of the wall or it's over. They all think I'm crazy, but we don't have a lot of redundancy in the system so we have places to go in case of failure.”
In the control room, a wall of monitors audits the action at Fox News locations, while a row of flat-screen televisions mounted near the ceiling are tuned to the other networks.
“We've been interested to see what's been going on with the hologram on CNN,” says Jay Wallace, VP of news editorial at Fox News. He's referring to the competition's experiment with virtual sets that beamed hologram images of field correspondents onto CNN's New York set.
“I'm guessing everyone is going to say it looked like Princess Leah in Star Wars,” he adds, foreshadowing post-election blog chatter.
Media circles are small and Wallace, who has been at Fox News since the channel's inception 12 years ago, still keeps in touch with a former roommate who is a technical producer at CNN. “I've avoided e-mailing him,” Wallace confesses. “So finally at 5 o'clock, I broke down: How's the hologram? And he said, Oh my God. I said, is that good, bad?
“So we saw it. We were like, phew; OK, it's not this great thing that we have to catch up to. 'A' for effort, but sometimes these things don't pan out. For every perceptive pixel magic wall, there's that stuff out there.”
Back on the Election HQ set, Hume, who began his career 35 years ago in the staid, 20th century medium of print journalism, marvels at Kelly's magic wall.
“See all the stuff we've got on that screen?” he asks. “We can do anything with that screen. It's truly remarkable.”
This is Hume's last Election Night as Fox News' D.C. managing editor and anchor. Having announced his plans to retire, he'll be conferred emeritus status and will contribute during big political events. And while he talks up the magic wall on camera, during a break, his off-camera frustration repeatedly rises when, say, a shot of McCain or Obama campaign headquarters gets projected on the magic wall rather than a first-generation image from the cameras stationed in Arizona and Chicago.
“Let's take it full,” he shouts. “This Election Night is not about our set. I have done everything I can tonight to promote our set. But let's knock it off.”
Early in the evening the magic wall shows the ballroom at the Biltmore Hotel in Phoenix, where a smattering of supporters has gathered at McCain campaign headquarters. A small troupe of Native American dancers dressed in elaborate war bonnets performs, skillfully avoiding the podium set up in the middle of the stage. If it is a rain dance, it will not produce a deluge of votes for their candidate.
Timing Is Everything
It is just after 8 p.m., and Fox News has yet to call Pennsylvania for Obama. During a break, Hume turns from the cameras, addressing the decision team clustered around a circular formation of computers behind him.
“ABC has called Pennsylvania for Obama?”
“So has NBC,” comes the reply.
“What do we think?” Hume asks.
The decision desk calls the WPE data from Pennsylvania inconclusive. WPE (Within Precinct Error) is essentially an average of the difference between exit polling data and the actual vote for all sample precincts in a state.
“WPE is running as high as 11% in positive numbers for Obama,” explains political correspondent Michael Barone.
There is no eleventh-hour shift to McCain. A few minutes later, Fox News projects an Obama win in Pennsylvania.
“This is a very hard one for the McCain campaign to swallow tonight,” says Hume to FNC's viewers. “The situation for Obama has markedly improved.”
On the eve of Election Day, the Obama campaign sent a memo to news organizations cautioning the reporting of poll closing times and pointing out inaccuracies on CNN's Election Central Website. “Partisan politics aside,” read the memo, “we all want every eligible voter to have the opportunity to cast their vote for the candidate of their choice, and appreciate the important role that the news media will play in making sure that Americans have the right information.”
But it was the McCain campaign that fired an early broadside at the media on Election Night when the networks began projecting Pennsylvania—where both candidates campaigned ferociously—for Obama. Kelly, shuttling between the FNC studio and the Fox Report studio next door where Shepard Smith is presiding over Election Night coverage on the broadcast network, explains that the McCain campaign “filed a formal objection” to the call.
“Haven't we called Pennsylvania for Obama?” whispers a staffer with shoulders raised.
It is the beginning of the end for McCain.
By 9 p.m., the Fox News team has been live for three hours and hunger is setting in. Rove, who earlier in the evening nearly walked in front of Hume's desk during a live shot—much as McCain did during the walking presidential debate—returns to the studio carrying a pink box. He opens the lid to reveal individually wrapped rectangular cookies covered with icing in shades of gray, black and silver meant to depict a television screen. They are Fox News 16X9 cookies, celebrating the network's high-definition rollout. They do not look particularly appetizing.
“He told me to bring snacks,” Rove calls out to staffers, pointing at Chris Wallace. “I brought snacks.”
Back at the desk he shares with Wallace, Rove proudly proffers the cookies, taking them out one by one and setting them in front of his desk-mate. Wallace looks to be made of stronger stuff. A crew from Entertainment Tonight, however, takes an interest in the gaudy snacks and rushes over to film Rove hamming it up.
Hume wheels his chair over to get a cookie, which he actually unwraps and begins to eat. Meanwhile his panel—The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes and Bill Kristol, Fortune magazine's Nina Easton and Juan Williams of NPR—are given more refined munchies: chocolate chip and sugar cookies. Williams quietly requests “a muffin or something.”
Last Call for Hume
At around 10:30 p.m., Fox News checks in with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid at an Election Night watch party in Washington. The mood there is festive. Reid, whom Hume derisively tags “Iraq war critic par excellence,” is addressing the cameras.
“Let's listen to him for a moment,” Hume says with a smile. After what may be about seven seconds, he says, “OK. That's enough.”
Moments later, the control room cues up Paul Ryan, the Republican Congressman from Wisconsin who is celebrating his own re-election this evening. Rep. Ryan is in high spin mode, brushing off the Republican Party's dismal showing at the polls and offering a prescription for the future. The party, he says, needs to be “the party of ideas.”
Pantomiming the universal signal for “cut him off,” Hume slashes his index finger across his throat. “All right, Congressman,” he says, now back on camera. “Very interesting. Thanks for talking with us.”
At 10:41 p.m., Fox News calls Virginia for Obama, where the polls have been closed since 7 p.m. At 11 p.m., when the polls close in California, the state with the most Electoral College votes at 55 and an uncontested Democratic stronghold, news organizations will officially tag Obama President-elect.
So at 10:57 p.m., during the commercial break, the giant electronic banner above the anchor desk flashes: “Obama President-Elect.” It is a last-minute get-it-right practice run. At exactly 11 p.m., FNC (along with CNN and MSNBC) calls the election for Obama.
Hume throws to Williams, a veteran of the race debate whose family emigrated to America from Panama. “It's a stunning sight,” Williams says, as the camera shows the ecstatic crowd at Grant Park in Chicago. “It's incomprehensible. Even a year ago I wouldn't have thought this possible, that an African-American man could be elected President of the United States.”
Williams is visibly moved. His voice cracks slightly and his eyes briefly well with tears.
Staring hard at the camera, a proxy for those calling the shots in the control room, Hume mouths the words “Show his face” and points at Williams. A few seconds later, the control room goes to a split screen of Williams and Obama supporters at Grant Park.
“This is truly an incredible moment in American history,” Williams continues. “I can't think of another country in the world where you could have a significant minority that was once so maligned and so oppressed finally have one of its sons rise to this level. I don't care how you feel about him politically, on some level you have to say this is America at its grandest.”
At 11:48 p.m., Hume says, “Well, we've got another call to make, as if it matters.” Florida, the linchpin in the destructively contested 2000 election, goes to Obama.
At midnight, Obama and his family, wife Michelle and daughters Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7, bound onto the Grant Park stage to thunderous applause. “Well, this is the moment,” Hume says. “There he is with those darling little girls.”
The set is quiet as Obama delivers his acceptance speech. In the control room, Obama's thank-you to his daughters—“Sasha and Malia, I love you both so much, and you have earned the new puppy that's coming with us to the White House”—elicits an admirable chuckle from the crew, many of whom have been following this campaign and the ascendancy of Barack Obama for nearly two years.
At 1 a.m. Hume, who is scheduled to stay on for another hour, has made an executive decision to call it a night. Bret Baier is summoned to slip into Hume's seat at the anchor desk. Hume's panel looks a bit forlorn as the PAs swoop in to remove his microphone. The switch is made, unceremoniously, during a commercial break.
Asked how he feels to have anchored the final presidential election of his career, Hume pauses a moment and says: “Mostly relieved.”
A young female assistant helps him into his raincoat. In the elevator on the way down from the Fox News 12th floor studios, a staffer says: “Brit, you're leaving already?” “The story's kind of over,” Hume says.
With that, the face of Fox News' coverage on the biggest Election Night in a generation exits News Corp.'s Avenue of the Americas headquarters, turns right on West 47th Street and walks off into the balmy night, alone. It is the end of an era and the beginning of a new one—for America and Fox News.
Billy Yonce - 11/11/2008 4:12:00 PM EST
That's interesting that Ailes says Fox News ratings dropped at the beginning of the Clinton administration. That was in 1993. Fox News was launched as a cable network in '96 or '97 I believe. Funny how that memory thing works for Ailes.
Special Ed - 11/11/2008 10:41:00 AM EST
Terry Wrong - 11/11/2008 10:18:00 AM EST
Vaporland - 11/11/2008 1:26:00 AM EST
Rupert Murdoch will try to destroy President Obama by the death of a thousand cuts... minute by minute, day after news day.
The will make sure EVERYTHING he does passes thought disproving, far right-wing Fox News filter.
Fox News will be nothing but negativity when it comes to our President elect.
David - 11/11/2008 1:02:00 AM EST
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