While Fox News allowed him to say his piece, it didn’t cave — and, more important, it didn’t question the legitimacy of the election over all, a move that could have led to all manner of unhealthy speculation.
The best journalistic instincts of Fox’s news people kicked in and the hard reality of Mr. Obama’s triumph was allowed to land as it occurred. In doing so, the network avoided marginalizing itself and ended, at least for a night, its war on the president.
Watching a news show transparently at war with itself made for extraordinary live television. Just after 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Fox News called Ohio for Mr. Obama. But Mr. Rove, who had helped finance over $300 million in attack ads, was getting phone calls from Romney officials protesting that forecast. He went on live television to challenge it, citing data he was receiving from the Ohio secretary of state.
“That’s awkward,” said Megyn Kelly, the co-anchor, speaking for many of us.
If Fox News had backed up under pressure from the Romney campaign and Mr. Rove, it could have fomented temporary but damaging unrest among its many fervent viewers.
Instead, Ms. Kelly walked down the hall and confronted the decision desk with Mr. Rove’s protest. She asked the head of Fox News’s decision team, Arnon Mishkin, “You tell me whether you stand by your call in Ohio given the doubts Karl Rove just raised?” Ms. Kelly may as well have been asking, “Are we a news organization or an instrument of the conservative agenda?”
Smiling, Mr. Mishkin answered plainly, “We are actually quite comfortable with our call in Ohio.” He and his colleagues were convinced, along with everyone else, that there were not enough Republican votes left in Ohio for Mr. Romney to turn the tide.
Ms. Kelly seemed satisfied, Mr. Rove was vanquished, and by this time the president had been declared the winner over all. Fox News, in this instance at least, landed firmly on the side of journalism, the facts and a narrative based on reality as opposed to partisan fantasy.
As my colleague Jeremy Peters reported, it was Michael Clemente, the executive vice president for news, who decided to let Mr. Rove have his say and then send Ms. Kelly to check it out.
“I was thinking about transparency, about putting out the facts as they happened,” Mr. Clemente told me in a telephone interview.
“For a half an hour, there was a missing piece that other networks were skating around — why there had been no talk of concession — and we wanted to explore why that was happening,” he said.
He added that once Fox concluded that the numbers from the decision desk were correct, it went with them.
“I knew that a big chunk of our viewers were going to be disappointed in the outcome,” Mr. Clemente said, “but I work on the news side, and the most important thing was getting it right.”
With the game declared over, Fox’s audience clicked off in droves. In the 10 p.m. hour, more than 10 million people were tuned in to Fox News, but that audience dropped almost by half in the 11 p.m. hour, once it was clear the president had been re-elected.
Jon Stewart, Slate and others had some fun with the civil war at Fox News, but I found the whole episode somewhat reassuring.
It was going to be a rough night at Fox News no matter how they played it.
The channel had pushed all its chips into the middle and showed its hand, all but declaring that it would be a big night for Mr. Romney. And in the run-up to the election, the channel tilted the rink in favor of Mr. Romney without compunction, keeping its viewers wrapped in a gauzy bubble of conservative notions about a country that had lost regard for its president.
According to Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, in the final days of the campaign Fox News ran more than two and a half hours of Mr. Romney’s speeches while giving just 27 minutes to Mr. Obama’s.
But the channel was hardly alone in its partisanship. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 71 percent of MSNBC’s segments about Mr. Romney were negative, while Fox News went negative on the president 46 percent of the time.
Part of the reason the result came as such a shock was that followers of conservative media had been told over and over that mainstream analysis was not to be trusted, that it reflected liberal ideology and not data. But they were misled by media outlets that shared their values, Fox chief among them. David Frum, the conservative columnist, made just that point on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” show last week when he said that Republicans had been “fleeced and exploited and lied to by a conservative entertainment complex.”
Campaigns are about partisanship, about the contest, but elections are about what actually happened. We all have our rooting interests, and Fox News’s are more manifest than most, but no news person wants to be caught out and end up looking dumb.
Fox News made the call on Ohio, and was the third network to call the election, behind NBC and MSNBC, because news people work there and knew what the data were saying. No matter how much Mr. Rove and much of the Fox News audience wanted it to end differently, Barack Obama had been duly re-elected as president of the United States. We decided. They reported.