It has been suggested, here and elsewhere, that Fox News effectively became part of the Republican propaganda apparatus during the presidential campaign by giving pundit slots to many of the Republican candidates and relentlessly advocating for Mitt Romney once he won the nomination. Over many months, Fox lulled its conservative base with agitprop: that President Obama was a clear failure, that a majority of Americans saw Mr. Romney as a good alternative in hard times, and that polls showing otherwise were politically motivated and not to be believed. But on Tuesday night, the people in charge of Fox News were confronted with a stark choice after it became clear that Mr. Romney had fallen short: was Fox, first and foremost, a place for advocacy or a place for news? In this moment, at least, Fox chose news.
By now, most of you have no doubt seen or read about the election-night stare-down between the anchors at Fox News and Karl Rove, who, apart from running a “super PAC” that aimed to defeat the president, also served as an on-air commentator. While news outlets love access to insiders, Mr. Rove’s two roles seemed to be in profound conflict after Fox’s decision desk projected that the president had won Ohio, all but guaranteeing him re-election. Mr. Rove said that the call was premature and that the decision desk was ignoring important data.
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?”