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Why Fox’s Election Night Coverage Was Both Entertaining and Disturbing

We’ve long passed the point where Fox News could be taken seriously as an actual news organization, where their “Fair and Balanced” tagline could be seen as anything other than a smirking, liberal-baiting in-joke, where anyone with half an understanding of reality and even-handedness could fail to see them for what they are: a disciplined, well-funded, smoothly-operated propaganda machine. And all of this is why so many have indulged in a bit of giggly schadenfreude in these hours following the decisive re-election of the network’s Kenyan/Socialist/Muslim/New Black Panther/ACORN boogeyman, President Barack Obama. We’ve had a good hearty laugh at their “dark night of the soul,” mused over their five stages of election grief, enjoyed the sad-face jpegs, and done play-by-plays of what became the most riveting television since season one of Lost. It’s fun. But even though no thinking person still believes Fox News engages in anything resembling journalism, it’s worth nothing that their odd shenanigans in the hour following the Ohio call were a rather astonishing loogie in the face of journalistic integrity and ethics.

If you made the normally sensible decision to steer clear of Fox News on Election Night, here’s the short version of what happened: at about 11:15pm, FNC’s decision desk called Ohio for Obama, the big win that pushed him over the benchmark of 270 electoral votes. But the evening’s on-air team included Fox News contributor Karl Rove, who also just happens to be the co-founder of American Crossroads, the pro-Romney SuperPAC that collected something like $300 million from people who have that kind of money to throw around, for the express purpose of making sure President Obama wasn’t re-elected. So, as you can imagine, he had something of a personal/professional/comically high monetary interest in the Ohio call not going that way, and so he decided to raise his voice in a brave challenge of, y’know, math.

Mr. Rove sputtered and hemmed and hawed, insisting that this race was too close to call, and for anyone old enough to remember election night 2000, it was richly satisfying indeed to hear Rove not only grasping at straws, but sharply warning “you’ve got to be careful about calling things when we have like 991 votes separating the two candidates and a quarter of the vote yet to count! Even if they have made it on the basis of select precincts, I’d be very cautious of intruding in this process!” (Yes, we certainly wouldn’t want to intrude in the process of counting votes.)

That statement made and Rove’s doubts cast, the network’s anchors could not, of course, merely shrug them off as the desperate ravings of a self-interested lunatic; they were left to break the silence merely with awkward chuckles and a proposal. “Here’s what we’re going to do,” anchor Bret Baier announced. “We’re going to get someone from the decision desk, and we’re going to bring them in here, and we’re going to interview them about the decision.”

“I think we should stick them next to Karl Rove and interview both of them,” co-anchor Megyn Kelly chimed in. “Let them interview each other.”

Yes, that’s what the folks at Fox thought would be a good solution to a commentator questioning the call of their decision desk, an entity that is supposed to operate independently of them: bring ‘em in here! Explain yourselves, nerds! The breaching of those boundaries was made that much clearer in the next segment, after producers had decided to send Kelly to the decision desk rather than the opposite (“This is Fox News,” an insider told New York magazine, “so anytime there’s a chance to show off Megyn Kelly’s legs they’ll go for it”). As she made the walk from her desk to theirs, she told viewers, with a straight face, “They used to keep them right here with us, in the studio, and then for some reason… they moved them down the hall.” Hey, Kelly, I’ve got a guess at what that mysterious reason was — it was so this wouldn’t happen, so they could operate free of the noise of what Jon Stewart has so eloquently dubbed “Bullshit Mountain.”

And that’s what so repulsive, from a standpoint of journalism (ha ha, sorry), about what happened on Fox News last night. It made for gripping television, don’t get me wrong, a weird but unquestionably watchable hybrid of faux-news, reality television, and meta media commentary (one almost expected to see, during Kelly’s stroll through Fox World, a Cabin in the Woods-style whiteboard, with “Benghazi” and “Best revenge” and “New Black Panthers” crossed off). But that segment and the one that followed — in which the Decision Desk’s Michael Barone did, in fact, have to come out to the anchor desk, kiss Rove’s ring, and explain that, yes, they really did do their math right — offered a shameful sight, even for Fox. It’s one thing to have a Republican operative on the payroll as a commentator. It’s another thing entirely to have him on your set on Election Night, not just figuratively but literally calling the shots.