Two simple words uttered on Fox News Channel Friday morning gave its audience obvious facts — and may have served to quell a nascent controversy about how the network intends to cover Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden if he should prove victorious in the 2020 election.
After CNN reported Friday morning that it had reviewed “two memos” instructing Fox News talent to “stay away” from calling Democratic candidate Joe Biden the “President-elect” when the network calls the race, Fox News anchor Bret Baier used the phrase on air. And Fox News said in a statement that “there have been no network wide memos or editorial guidance from Fox News” regarding use of the phrase.
CNN noted “email messages” that suggested staffers “should stay away from calling him [Biden] ‘President-elect’ for the time being.” Another “email message” told recipients “we will not be calling Biden the president elect. Or using any of the whizbang graphics that say so.” CNN’s report does not specify the executive or executives from whom the comments came, or the level that person or persons might occupy in Fox News’ editorial operations. A CNN spokesperson declined to elaborate on the report or to delineate whether the news outlet reviewed official memos or remarks delivered in emails between staffers.
An outright refusal by Fox News to give Biden the courtesy of being called “president elect” would go against many journalistic norms — and no doubt be seized upon by its most fervent viewers as a sign of the network’s tepid belief in the legitimacy of the election.
On Friday morning, anchors Bret Baier and Bill Hemmer appeared to flout the seeming instructions. “This, Bret and Martha, is where we come back into the conversation here and talk about the significance and the importance of determining an outcome in the Keystone State. If the president were to get it, he’d be at 274. But at the moment, it appears that that is getting further and further from his grasp,” said Hemmer. “And if you make a call for Joe Biden at 264, the math is pretty obvious. In Pennsylvania, that would give him 284 electoral votes.”
Baier replied: “And he would become the president elect of the United States.”
“That is correct,” Hemmer said.
Election coverage on the news networks is under intense scrutiny as the nation watches a real-life nail-biter that is every bit as fascinating as a popular miniseries on Netflix or the finale of a much-loved and complicated drama like “Lost.” Fox News has come under a particularly tight microscope after its decision desk made an early call that Arizona would go to Biden over President Donald Trump — a move that has given Biden a tally that could put Fox News in the positing of calling the race for the Democrat. Other media outlets like the Associated Press and USA Today have subsequently made similar calls and Fox News’s decision desk has reiterated its finding multiple times on air over the past few days.
The White House and Fox News’ own opinion programs have pushed back on many of these notions. Meanwhile, Fox News’ election coverage has attracted the attention of pro-Biden voters who want to see if what has long been one of Trump’s favorite media outlets may actually be the first to announce that he has lost his bid to stay in the Oval Office. Baier and his co-anchor, Martha MacCallum, get praise in one moment for pushing back on claims made by White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany about voting and slammed in another for not using stronger language to describe some of President Trump’s false claims about his status in the race.
Personalities on CNN and Fox News Channel have in recent months engaged in new levels of sniping at one another. The contretemps between the two cable-news rivals has spurred Fox News Channel primetime host Tucker Carlson to play tapes of CNN’s Chris Cuomo or reveal information about CNN President Jeff Zucker trying to court Trump through his former attorney Michael Cohen. Meanwhile, CNN anchor Brianna Keilar has delivered a handful of segments on her weekday daytime program tackling claims made by Fox News personalities and CNN’s team of media reporters played an instrumental role in revealing unseemly online behavior by a writer at “Tucker Carlson Tonight” that resulted in that employee leaving the program and the network.
Similar feuds have erupted in the past. In 2009, News Corp. and General Electric — then the owners of Fox News and MSNBC — forced a halt to months of public insults traded on air by primetime hosts Bill O’Reilly and Keith Olbermann. But it took Rupert Murdoch, then head of News Corporation, and Jeffrey Immelt, chief of GE, to orchestrate a cease fire.