What Chris Stirewalt has learned

One of the notable media sidebars to election night was the FOX News call of Arizona for Biden with 800,000 votes outstanding. At the time FOX had yet to call Florida, although just about all the votes to be counted were up in the Panhandle.

The Trump campaign was not happy. FOX News called on Arnon Mishkin — the consultant crunching the numbers on its so-called Decision Desk — to explain: “What I think we’ve heard from the White House is that … they need just to get 61 percent of the outstanding vote, and there are 870,000 outstanding votes, and they’ll be getting that. That’s not true.”

Mishkin added (my emphasis): “The reality is that they’re likely to only get about 44 percent of the outstanding votes that are there. We’re right now sitting on a race that is about Biden at 53 percent, Trump at 46 percent. I’m sorry, the president is not going to be able to take over and win enough votes to eliminate that 7-point lead that the former vice president has.” Rather, Mishkin implied, Biden would widen his lead in the final count.

Two days after the call, FOX News politics editor and Decision Desk principal Chris Stirewalt said on the air that “Arizona is doing just what we expected it to do and we remain serene and pristine.”

In the final count Biden’s margin narrowed to 0.3 percent — 49.4 percent to 49.1 percent, a difference of about 10,500 votes. I find it hard to believe that this is what Stirewalt and his Decision Desk colleagues “expected [Arizona] to do.”

FOX News has yet to defend the propriety of its Arizona call with 800,000 votes outstanding or to offer an explanation of any kind. FOX News apparently does not believe it owes its viewers an explanation. It has instead taken the easy way out and fired Stirewalt.

It’s a twist on the Ring Lardner joke. “You’re fired,” he explained. That’s apparently the only explanation we’re going to get.

Today the Los Angeles Times has published Stirewalt’s column “I called Arizona for Biden on Fox News. Here’s what I learned.” What Chris Stirewalt has learned is that it’s hard being right. He has suffered for his rectitude. Nobody knows the trouble he’s seen.

Like FOX News itself, Stirewalt offers no explanation of what happened on the Decision Desk election night. Readers not familiar with the issue he is avoiding will depart as ignorant as they arrived.

Rather, Stirewalt implicitly addresses the deficiencies of viewers of FOX News and of FOX News itself. He explicitly addresses “the rebellion on the populist right,” including the sacking of the Capitol. This is the conclusion of his column:

When I defended the call for Biden in the Arizona election, I became a target of murderous rage from consumers who were furious at not having their views confirmed.

Having been cosseted by self-validating coverage for so long, many Americans now consider any news that might suggest that they are in error or that their side has been defeated as an attack on them personally. The lie that Trump won the 2020 election wasn’t nearly as much aimed at the opposing party as it was at the news outlets that stated the obvious, incontrovertible fact.

While there is still a lucrative market for a balanced offering of news and opinion at high-end outlets, much of the mainstream is increasingly bent toward flattery and fluff. Most stories are morally complicated and don’t have white hats and black hats. Defeats have many causes and victories are never complete. Reporting these stories requires skill and dispassion. But hearing them requires something of consumers, too: Enough humility to be open to learning something new.

I remain confident that the current depredations of the digital revolution will pass, just as those of the telegraph, radio and broadcast television did. Americans grew into those media and providers learned to meet the demands of a more sophisticated marketplace. That’s the work that I’ve always aimed to do and hope to be part of for many years to come.

What tugs at my mind after seeing a mob of enthusiastic ignoramuses sack the Capitol, though, is whether that sophistication will come quickly enough when outlets have the means to cater to every unhealthy craving of their consumers.

But how was it right to call Arizona with 800,000 votes outstanding? Those of us wondering what happened at FOX News on election night will have to turn elsewhere for illumination. Stirewalt confesses only to the ordeal of being right. What has he learned? We can infer that Stirewalt has learned how to change the subject.

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