The Fox Corp these days reminds me a little of America: elites have lost control, and partisan noise drowns out almost everything But there are pockets where traditionalists cling to fading standards
One of those pockets is a new office on the third floor of Fox’s corporate headquarters on Avenue of the Americas in Manhattan, known to employees as the “nerdquarium.” This is where Arnon Mishkin, a thorny, bespectacled 65-year-old man and his team of data-computations will come to work on election day And this November 3, Mishkin could be the last bastion against the most frightening prophecies of electoral madness
Mishkin heads Fox News’ ‘decision-making office’, the team tasked with telling viewers of Fox – also known as the base Donald Trump – who won the election The team and his unit of sister vote are among the few efforts by Fox that have proven immune to the president’s takeover of the network. Mishkin is a simple shooter – a registered Democrat who told me he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and gets paid as a consultant, not a Fox employee
« No one will put their finger on the scale either way, » he told me with de facto confidence in an interview on Friday from his Upper West Side home.
Election night is shaping up to be a dangerous and high-pressure time for the country and for television journalists, who traditionally play a huge role in telling Americans who won our decentralized and locally organized national elections. Donald Trump has spent the last week working overtime to cast doubt on the validity of the next election
But nowhere is the tension higher than at Fox, who served as a platform, megaphone and cheerleading team for Trump and his counterfactual claims for nearly four years And on the night when the stakes are highest, it’s up to the humble Mishkin, more than any other individual, to represent reality
« We are going to be under tremendous pressure, » another senior Fox official told me about election night
The nightmare scenario goes like this: It’s a close race, and Trump leads the vote count in Pennsylvania, and only needs this state to win the election Tens of thousands of votes are still not validated and the tally can take weeks – but Trump has already said he’s been re-elected He’s asking Fox to do the same, calling Fox Corp’s Rupert Murdoch co-chair, or the channels return to executive that effectively runs the network, Viet Dinh Trump’s most loyal sidekicks at Fox, prime-time hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, back the president’s claims on the airwaves And Fox is facing to the temptation to which he often succumbs: to offer his audience the alternative reality they want
« The choice Fox is going to make is really concerning given its own history, » said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is among the groups pushing journalists to take their time to cover the vote count « Are they going to become a state media body and sabotage our democracy in the process, or will they present themselves as media that are going to be thoughtful and cautious to prematurely call the results before that all the ballots are not counted? »
A headline from Slate last week put it bluntly: « Fox News’ decision-making office controls the fate of American democracy »
I spoke with Mishkin and other current and former Fox News employees last week to find out if this nightmare situation could unfold.Some to my surprise, many have said that while they did expected Mishkin to compete with Hannity and others who will echo Trump’s claims, Fox’s bizarre and chaotic internal politics will likely shield him and the ruling office from any real interference.
The problem for a confused president is this: if you want to talk to Fox News, who do you call?
Outsiders often view Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire as a well-oiled machine, but it is, in truth, a shambolic, hip-pulled organization Nowadays it looks more like the creaking heart of an aging monarch than a powerful or efficient society
It’s unclear who runs Fox since network founder Roger Ailes resigned in disgrace in 2016 Is Murdoch, 89, who survived the pandemic at his country mansion in Oxfordshire and who often sleeps in prime time in the United States? Or his son Lachlan, general manager of the network? A better bet might be Dinh, the little-known but influential insider who runs Fox News’ parent company for young Murdoch Or maybe the network’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, although Fox insiders say she has long given up on trying to control her on-air talents?
Mishkin, for his part, operates independently with a team of eight (they are all men) of statisticians, political scientists, pollsters and journalists. When I asked him who he reported to he fell silent and then tried to remember who approved his spending
« The odd thing is that the decision-making office doesn’t really report to anyone, » someone familiar with the operation told me, on condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as undermining Fox’s attempts to present itself as a news organization Mishkin said that Fox control room executives can « kick the tires » when he makes a call (Mishkin’s team not only declares the winner presidential contest, but calls for results in individual states based on live vote tally and data analysis) Fox’s senior executive vice president of corporate communications Irena Briganti, who participated on my call with Mishkin, said the ruling office was part of the news division
Mishkin and Fox’s chief pollster Dana Blanton is part of the wobbly and down-to-earth community of electoral nerds that populate decision-making offices and similar polls in the media Mishkin and Blanton have also led the charge to create a alternative to traditional exit polls, the big polls of voters conducted before and on election day called VoteCast, in partnership with the Associated Press The emergence of Twitter has made much of their work transparent to anyone wishing to follow their so enthusiastic abstruse debates on election day over historic voting patterns in key neighborhoods in Waukesha County, Wisconsin. And it’s clear that Fox’s operation is well regarded by its peers
« Arnon and everyone working on their data are really scrupulous and I think they’re doing a really good job, » says Ariel Edwards-Levy, editor of the HuffPost survey
Mishkin came to Fox in 1998 with an elite CV – Andover, Yale University, Harvard Business School – and experience in political polls He began working for New York political consultant David Garth, who helped elect mayors Edward I Koch and Rudy Giuliani and advised a local developer named Donald Trump Garth also worked for Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles in his failed run for governor of California in 1982 This election gave birth to the idea of a « Bradley effect », in which white voters lie to pollsters about their intention to support a black candidate, concealing their racial prejudices and exaggerating the candidate’s position. Not everyone believes this happened to Bradley, but Mishkin said he learned at the time that voters were hiding their feelings from pollsters Sometimes they describe themselves as undecided rather than acknowledging that they are supporting a « socially undesirable » candidate – which he says helps explain why polls failed to predict Trump’s victory in 2016. p>
Mishkin has kept his role as Fox more or less a secret for years as he didn’t want it to interfere with his partnership with Boston Consulting Group, where he advised media companies like Forbes and The Associated Press on marketing and Internet strategy He quietly took over from Fox when his friend and predecessor, John Ellis, George W Bush’s first cousin withdrew after the messy 2000 election
Many of Mishkin’s friends and business partners have told me they didn’t even know he was at Fox until election night 2012, when an unexpected and memorable drama unfolded at the on air: Karl Rove, a Fox commentator, was adamantly opposed to the ruling office calling that Barack Obama would win Ohio, and therefore, be re-elected As Rove fumed, an anchor, Megyn Kelly, came off the set, cameras in trailer, down a long hallway leading to Mishkin’s operation, and asked if he was confident in his call
A steadfast, if not quite camera-ready Mishkin with his hands in his pockets calmly spoke « 9995% » certain that Obama had won Fox stuck with his call – and with reality
“It was like Clark Kent and Superman – I didn’t know he was in the middle of it until Megyn walked down the hall,” said Jim Kennedy, senior vice president of strategy and business development at Associated Press, who has worked with Mishkin as a consultant for years « That’s where I realized – it’s Arnon »
Mishkin ran the office with the same confidence in the summer of 2016, when, said a former colleague, he and his team were rejecting Trump’s chances Eric Bolling, then Fox Business host who would visit their « nerdquarium » to argue Trump’s case, complained that nerds were not taking the possibility of Trump’s victory seriously enough, the former colleague said Mishkin said, on the contrary, he takes Trump’s prospects so seriously that one of his daughters told him he’s starting to look like the countless Trump booster Bill Mitchell.
This time around, Mishkin was skeptical of Trump’s chances on social media and in occasional Fox appearances, echoing Blanton’s polls A friend of his told me he was frustrated with the fact that Fox wouldn’t put those opinions on the air When I asked him about it he moved on to the consultant talk « As media companies increasingly depend on subscription revenues, they evolve to tell readers what they want to hear, and I think that’s true for all journalistic organizations in America, « he said
Mishkin told me no one at Fox ever asked him who he voted for in 2016 Now the question is whether the network will let him do his job when it really matters on election night Last time around 12 million viewers watched Kelly, who now hosts an independent podcast, said she was convinced he would
« That night you’re going to be able to trust who’s there because it’s run by Fox News reporters, » Kelly said
If that doesn’t give you complete confidence, Mishkin’s friends say his unyielding personal qualities should be a man who, after asking for a show of hands from his team, confidently faced Rove.
“It doesn’t matter who runs Fox or what Donald Trump wants,” said his business partner and Yale connection Samuel OJ Spivy “What interests Arnon is who is the winner”
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