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Conflict flared at Fox News after Biden's victory in 2020, former Fox editor says

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

On election night of 2020, the first network to call the swing state of Arizona for Joe Biden was actually the one favored by Donald Trump supporters, Fox News. Chris Stirewalt was the political director at Fox News at the time. He testified today before the House committee investigating the January 6 attack. And he said the margin of victory not only in Arizona but in other key states was so large that Trump had no chance to overturn Biden's win.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOUSE COMMITTEE HEARING)

CHRIS STIREWALT: He needed three of these states to change. And in order to do that, I mean, you're better off to play the Powerball than to have that come in.

KELLY: Stirewalt did not tell Congress about the controversy that erupted after the Fox News election desk declared Biden's victory. He shared that story in an exclusive interview minutes later with NPR's David Folkenflik, who is with me now. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so I remember this on election night, when Fox called Arizona for Biden, and a lot of Trump supporters were really angry. I know you have brought us a chunk of your interview with Stirewalt about what that felt like inside Fox. What did he tell you?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he said, look, he's trying to focus - along with Arnon Mishkin, the head of the Fox News Decision Desk, and their colleagues - on the next states. What else was going to happen? But it created incredible tension inside Fox News. A guy like Stirewalt wants to report the news, whatever's going to happen, and so do their anchors like Bret Baier. But Fox does not want to alienate its core viewers who are Trump's core supporters.

At the same time, you're - that - during that night and subsequently, people closest to Trump are hammering the network's stars, the network's executives, some of their parent company executives, including Rupert Murdoch reportedly, trying to get them to get Fox News to take back the Arizona projection. Stirewalt told me he didn't quite see the rage coming.

STIREWALT: We don't award any electoral votes. We don't count any ballots. We are some nerds in a room, and that's it. We're just - we're telling you what's going to happen. We're not making anything happen. And it showed to me how much television - the perceptions of events of television as entertainment, news as entertainment and treating it like a sport had really damaged the capacity of Americans to be good citizens in a republic because they confused the TV show with the real thing.

FOLKENFLIK: And yet, in some ways, in this case, the TV show was telling people the real thing, they just didn't want to hear it.

STIREWALT: Yeah. Well, I mean, part of the problem, of course, was that there were opinion hosts on Fox who, for months and months and months, had been repeating the baseless claim that Trump was going to win the election for sure or that we were going to do it again or don't listen to the polls. Fox News should have been proud of the work we did. Fox News should have been proud of the work that we did, and we should have been rewarded, and we should have been lifted up. And they should have defended the journalists who they hired to do a job.

FOLKENFLIK: What ensued, it seems to me, on the airwaves at Fox was people saying things they ultimately knew wasn't true.

STIREWALT: Well, here's a good rule for everybody. Don't pay attention to what partisans say about things, usually. Because what else are they supposed to say, right? And Sean Hannity is a good example. He's a Republican. He's always going to tell you what's good for Republicans. And he's going to leave out what's bad for Republicans and focus on what's bad for Democrats. OK, fine. But you don't need to pay attention to that because you know what he's going to say. Fox lost the thread over time, but the old idea at Fox was a robust news division. But in 2020, for a lot of reasons, there was some panic.

FOLKENFLIK: You mentioned a soft coup. How well would Fox viewers, particularly of its more popular shows, understand that that's what happened?

STIREWALT: I care less about what Fox viewers or Republicans or whomever care happened in 2020. What I care about is, in 2024, are we going to look back on 2020 and say, that was weird, moving on or are we entering a new chapter in American history where we gradually fall apart because we can't even agree on the results of an election?

FOLKENFLIK: And what was your headline for the coverage of this be?

STIREWALT: I lived (laughter). I lived - survivor - exclamation point.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he also survived election night 2020. But he was fired a couple months later. He's now political director of NewsNation, a startup newscast.

KELLY: And real quick, David, Fox did not air the first congressional hearing live. It did air the hearing today. How are they navigating Stirewalt's appearance?

FOLKENFLIK: They're skirting pretty clear of talking about Stirewalt directly. In past, they said he'd been let go as part of normal restructuring. And let's be clear, Fox stood by the projection of its decision desk despite that intense pressure. Yet you could see the network scrambling in the days and weeks that followed to try to make it up to core Trump supporters, including in the broadcast and amplification of the big election lies from Trump and his closest advisers in the week that followed and that are the subject of these hearings.

KELLY: NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.