Fox guarding the henhouse

By hiring George Bush's cousin to run a crucial part of its election coverage, the right-wing Fox Network hits a new low in conflict of interest.

Published November 15, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

Why didn't the Fox News Channel hire George Will to man its Election Night Decision Desk? Or Peggy Noonan or William Safire? Hell, why not just go right to the source and hire George W. Bush himself?

These aren't rhetorical questions. Because Fox has made it perfectly clear that it sees nothing wrong with hiring an active George Bush partisan -- who also just happens to be his cousin -- to run a crucial part of its election desk.

John Ellis, a cousin of Bush, helped make the decision to finally (and erroneously) call Florida for Bush in the wee hours of Election Night. The call, the first by any network, created the false impression that Bush had won the general election. Ever since, the Bush camp has been playing the "we won" card; Fox's call made it a participant in the election, not merely an observer.

But the fact that it was a close relative of one of the candidates who helped make the call doesn't trouble Rupert Murdoch's right-wing cable network in the least. To the rest of the journalistic community, it may represent a new low in conflict of interest, but to Fox, hiring a man who recently wrote "I am loyal to my cousin, Governor George Bush of Texas. I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone else outside my immediate family" is sound editorial policy. The only thing that troubles Fox is that Ellis, a vocal Clinton and Gore critic, violated company policy by swapping proprietary information with cousins George and Jeb (that stands for John Ellis Bush) in phone conversations on Election Night.

In an interview with the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, Ellis bragged about how he spent much of Election Night on the phone with his cousins talking strategies and exit-polling. Mayer deftly lets Ellis hang himself with his own self-important words: "At 2 a.m. Ellis called his cousins and told them, 'Our projection shows that it is statistically impossible for Gore to win Florida.' It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth -- me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other the president-elect. Now, that was cool."

It was also a violation of company policy. The data Ellis was reportedly swapping with the Bush camp (post-New Yorker, he now denies it) came from Voter News Service, a media-backed consortium that gathers crucial, hush-hush voting information on Election Day. According to a Boston Globe news report during the primary season, "Fox News chairman Roger Ailes warned staffers to keep exit poll results to themselves and reiterated Fox's policy not to 'broadcast, publish or disseminate outcome projections' based on exit poll data before poll closings."

Ailes, of course, is the former Republican political image-maker who in his earlier incarnation coached George W. Bush's father.

On Monday, when the New Yorker hit newsstands, Fox News vice president John Moody admitted that Ellis had erred, but defended hiring him, suggesting it would have been unfair not to hire him simply because of who he was related to -- a remarkably genial interpretation of conflict of interest. By Tuesday, after the revelations of Ellis' information-trading, Moody came down harder, saying that Fox was pondering disciplinary action against Ellis for misusing his position of power at the channel.

Since Ellis was working for Fox as a consultant on a 30-day contract, that point seems moot.

But Ellis isn't just a Bush cousin who happens to work in television and stumbled into an awkward position on Election Night. He's a former Gingrich foot soldier, a raging partisan who is steeped in the Clinton-hating tradition of the far right. (That's something the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, New York Times and even the New Yorker itself have failed to report in recent days.) Fox, of course, knew that.

The cable network describes Ellis as a "number cruncher." But that bland description doesn't exactly fit the Republican attack-dog columns Ellis penned during most of the '90s for the Boston Globe, and more recently for the New York Press.

To Ellis, President Clinton is an "amoral" "sexual predator" who occupies "a morally berserk universe." Under Clinton's depraved leadership, Ellis wrote, America faces a grim fate: "It will get worse before it gets better, because the truth is, it will never get better until Bill Clinton is gone."

There wasn't a flimsy Clinton-hating conspiracy that Ellis didn't sign onto -- Chinese spying, Whitewater, Vince Foster, hush money. Watch here as Ellis goes 0-for-6 in just one Clinton-bashing paragraph: "He lied about Whitewater. He lied about Castle Grande. He lied about the firing of the White House travel office personnel. He lied about his staff's mishandling of FBI files. He lied about the circumstances surrounding the suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster. He lied about a vast White House effort to hush up former assistant attorney general and convicted felon Webster Hubbell."

As the Monica Lewinsky story began to break, Ellis was positively breathless in that Matt Drudge kind of way: "The end could come with astonishing speed. Senior Democratic Party officials were already beginning to speak of how they might execute the president's departure. It's over. Clinton is finished. The rest is endgame."

One week later, more of Ellis' keen prognostication was on display: "There are reports all over Washington that Clinton is planning to fire Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. More shoes are expected to drop in the various Clinton investigations."

Ellis wasn't above using his columns to flak for his cousin, either. Marveling at Bush's reelection win in Texas, Ellis (who usually informed readers about his family connection), wrote, "The scope of Bush's victory left seasoned professionals in awe." It certainly seemed to leave Ellis in awe, as evidenced by the following heart-drenched effusion: "Bush loves his life. He loves his wife and daughters. He loves his family and friends. He loves his job. He loves his home. He loves Texas, a state that is a nation unto itself. When he wakes up in the morning, he can hardly wait to get to work."

Fox News execs say they didn't hire Ellis because of his "bloodline." They must not have hired him for his political foresight, either, because his crystal-ball record is abysmal.

On the eve of the '98 congressional elections, Ellis, like every other GOP true believer, was confident that "Clinton is to the Democratic Party what the Titanic was to its passengers. He's taking everybody down with him." Wrong. Fed up with the impeachment hearings, voters dealt the GOP a humiliating blow.

Hillary's Senate campaign in New York? "She will not win because her candidacy isn't about New York, or the people who live here, or what she might do for them. It's about her. The moment New Yorkers collectively understand this -- that they're being used -- will be the moment that her candidacy curdles. What might have been 'you go girl' will become 'just go away.'"

Imagine how Ellis felt working the Fox News Decision Desk when it had to call the New York Senate race as a lopsided win for the first lady.

As for Gore, Ellis wrote this summer that he was a "goner," that his advisors would never allow the vice president to select a Jewish running mate, and that, barring a dramatic shift, there was "no Electoral College math that works" for him.

So let's get this straight. Fox hired a partisan Bush cousin -- who thinks Gore's campaign practiced "stupid politics," that Hillary Clinton is "immoral" and her husband "loathsome" -- to run a crucial part of its election coverage. He spent Election Night on the phone with the Republican candidate and his closest advisors reportedly swapping embargoed voting data. And he was able, through his flawed call of Florida, to create the false impression that Bush had won the election.

Who needs a vast right-wing conspiracy when you've got a vast right-wing network?

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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2000 Elections Fox News George W. Bush