“Chris Stirewalt was part of a pivotal decision to declare Joe Biden the winner of Arizona in 2020. Now he’s speaking out about a network he says incites “black-helicopter-level paranoia and hatred.”
You're reading the On Politics newsletter, for Times subscribers only. A Times reader’s guide to the political news in Washington and across the nation.
Today’s newsletter is a guest contribution by Jeremy W. Peters, who writes for The Times’s media desk. He got his hands on a forthcoming book by Chris Stirewalt, a former senior journalist at Fox News, and shares its highlights here.
After a decade at Fox News, Chris Stirewalt was suddenly shown the door in January 2021, becoming a casualty of restructuring — or, at least, that was how Fox described his and other layoffs that swept out longtime journalists who were part of the network’s news division.
Stirewalt, who was part of the team at Fox News that projects election results and who testified before the House Jan. 6 committee this summer, suspects there was a bigger reason behind his firing, which he explains in his new book, “Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back,” to be released next week.
“I got canned after very vocal and very online viewers — including the then-president of the United States — became furious when our Decision Desk was the first to project that Joe Biden would win the former G.O.P. stronghold of Arizona in 2020,” Stirewalt writes.
Coming at 11:20 p.m., well before the other networks declared that Biden would win the state, the Fox call was extremely controversial and consequential. It infuriated Donald Trump and threw a wrench into his attempt to falsely declare himself the winner of the 2020 election. He ordered his campaign aides to demand that Fox retract the call, to no avail.
Despite the pressure to reverse its decision, and the ratings crash Fox suffered in the next few weeks after Trump urged people to watch other networks, the network didn’t buckle because the Decision Desk analysts insisted that the data backed up their projections. And they were right.
A spokeswoman for Fox News said, “Chris Stirewalt’s quest for relevance knows no bounds,” and disputed the idea that his departure from the network had anything to do with the Arizona call. She added that Arnon Mishkin, the head of the Decision Desk, would be returning for the November midterm elections.
Green beans and ice cream
Stirewalt’s book is an often candid reflection on the state of political journalism and his time at Fox News, where such post-mortem assessments are not common — either because of the strict confidentiality agreements in place for employees, or the loyalty that some network insiders continue to feel even after they’ve left.
In Stirewalt’s view, the network has played a leading role in the coarsening of American democracy and the radicalization of the right. At one point in the book, he accuses Fox of inciting “black-helicopter-level paranoia and hatred.”
He describes how, over his 11 years at the network, he witnessed Fox feeding its viewers more and more of what they wanted to hear, and little else. This kind of affirming coverage got worse during the years that Trump was president, he says, and turbocharged the reaction of Trump supporters once Fox called Arizona for Biden.
“Even in the four years since the previous presidential election, Fox viewers had become even more accustomed to flattery and less willing to hear news that challenged their expectations,” he writes. “Me serving up green beans to viewers who had been spoon-fed ice cream sundaes for years came as a terrible shock to their systems.”
He describes the “rage” directed at him and the rest of the Decision Desk team, writing, “Amid the geyser of anger in the wake of the Arizona call, Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, called for my firing and accused me of a ‘cover-up.’”
He goes on, “Covering up what, exactly? We didn’t have any ballots to count and we didn’t have any electoral votes to award.”
Stirewalt also writes: “Had viewers been given a more accurate understanding of the race over time, Trump’s loss would have been seen as a likely outcome. Instead of understanding his narrow win in 2016 as the shocking upset that it was, viewers were told to assume that polls don’t apply (unless they were good for Trump) and that forecasters like me were going to be wrong again.”
Stirewalt names names, taking particular aim at Tucker Carlson, the host of Fox’s highest-rated prime time show and a frequent fanner of flames in the nation’s cultural battles. He paints Carlson and Fox management as hypocrites who claim to be standing up against big corporate media despite being part of a gigantic corporate media enterprise.
“Carlson is rich and famous,” Stirewalt writes. “Yet he regularly rails about the ‘big, legacy media outlets.’ Guests denounce the ‘corporate media’ on his show and Fox’s C.E.O. calls Carlson ‘brave’ for discussing controversial topics. Yet somehow, nobody even giggles.”
He adds, “It does not take any kind of journalistic courage to pump out night after night exactly what your audience wants to hear.”
What Fox wants
Stirewalt also offers a counterintuitive take on what Fox News ultimately wants to achieve by offering content that tilts hard to the right. It’s not to elect Republicans or really even to help them at all, he says.
Rather, it’s about making money.
Hosts like Sean Hannity and analysts like Dick Morris, the former Clinton aide who became a fixture on Fox, for years propagated falsehoods to their audiences about how well Republicans were positioned to win their races, apparently aiming to juice the network’s ratings, Stirewalt writes.
“They wanted it to be true because they wanted Republicans to win,” he says, “but keeping viewers keyed up about the epochal victory close at hand was an appealing incentive to exaggerate the G.O.P. chances. It was good for them to raise expectations, but it wasn’t good for the party they were rooting for.”
He adds, “Despite all that Fox’s detractors said about the network being a mouthpiece for the Republican Party, the two organizations had fundamentally different aims.”
Stirewalt briefly reflects on what his role in all of this might have been, now that he’s been gone for a year and a half. He is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for The Dispatch.
“I make no pretense that I have always been on the side of the angels,” he writes. “But I have definitely paid my dues.”