Chris Stirewalt, the former politics editor at Fox News on Election Night in 2020, is receiving praise for the confidence he expressed during his testimony today, as well as for his candid expression of Fox’s desire to “beat the competition” in being the first news organization to “call” a key Electoral College battleground state. I dissent from that assessment (although I share the appreciation for Stirewalt’s effort to educate viewers on the relevance of the “blue shift” phenomenon to the vote-counting process in 2020). I fear that elevating Stirewalt in this way feeds into the public’s misbelief that the media, rather than government bodies, determine the winners of elections. Indeed, I was surprised—and somewhat troubled—by how Rep. Lofgren asked Stirewalt for his “judgment” on Trump’s chances of winning the election after November 7, as if he rather than the relevant government officials was in a position to be authoritative on the matter.
It is important to be clear on exactly what Stirewalt and Fox were competitive about. It was not about being the first news organization to report a fact or get the scoop on a document (like one of the Eastman memos). Instead, it was about being the first news organization willing to make a prediction about which candidate had received enough votes to eventually be declared winner of the state. To be sure, the news organization’s prediction needed to be based on sound information gathering and analysis, so that it wouldn’t look foolish by turning out to be wrong or having to retract its premature predication (as occurred in 2000). But a network’s “call” is still just the network’s own prediction, and not reporting the fact that a candidate has actually won the election in the state.
It is not in the media’s self-interest to be forthright on this important point, and neither Stirewalt’s testimony today nor the subsequent praise for it (in the media, naturally) endeavored to help the public realize that a network’s “call” plays no official role in determining the winner of an election. The competitive desire to be the first to “call” a state in a presidential election, moreover, exacerbates public confusion on how the entire Electoral College process works, ascribing more significance to what occurs on Election Night (or its immediate aftermath) than is warranted given how the Constitution governs the procedures for electing a president. Assuming that the role of the January 6 committee’s hearings is to improve the public’s understanding of the truth regarding the 2020 presidential election, then the media should not be suggesting that Fox News established the “truth” that Biden won Arizona when Fox called the state for him. Rather, Fox merely—and luckily, as it turned out—prognosticated correctly that Biden would win the state when eventually all the relevant legal proceedings were complete and the winner officially certified.