Fox News’ Election Night Fiasco

When Karl Rove went nuts on the air, the network handled it well — but you reap what you sow.

Whether you love, despise, or hate-watch Fox News, the network — very inadvertently! — won the entertainment wars Tuesday night when Karl Rove threw his now infamous diva fit about Ohio. People on my Twitter feed who were so bored they were trying to make Diane Sawyer’s coverage into something loopier than it was finally had a genuinely jaw-dropping spectacle to watch. As of Wednesday afternoon, “Karl Rove” continues to trend on Twitter and Google. It was wonderful.

Not that Rove mentioned his behavior Wednesday morning on Fox News, nor was he asked about it. But as it went down during election night, and anchors Bret Baier and Megyn Kelly were stuck dealing with Rove, I thought to myself how much better Fox News is at handling these sorts of live-television contretemps than the other cable news channels.

Instead of trying to shut Rove up, Baier and Kelly indulged him, crazy Uncle Karl–style, taking his critique of — let’s spell it out here — the network’s journalism and integrity seriously enough both to let him rant and to fact-check for him. But they did it with a raised eyebrow that let viewers know they weren’t really questioning the Ohio call and the election. There’s time to fill, after all, so why not send Kelly to talk to the decision-desk guys about why they were sure Ohio would tilt toward President Obama? Why not indeed: In Gabriel Sherman’s category-killing behind-the-scenes post for New York about Fox News’ night, he quoted an anonymous Fox source saying, “‘This is Fox News, so anytime there’s a chance to show off Megyn Kelly’s legs they’ll go for it.’”

That sort of snide/blecch/just-stop-it sexism is from the Fox News playbook, but I barely buy it in this case: None of that half hour or so of TV was thought out in any way. And though Kelly said during her long walk to the decision desk that they had rehearsed the scenario, from the hundred years it took her and her hilarious ad libs along the way (about the FNC stats team: “They used to keep them right here with us in the studio, then for some reason — whoa, careful! — then for some reason, they moved them down the hall. We were too close.”), well, it’s safe to say that they hadn’t rehearsed it enough.

Getty Images

Image by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

The spectacle will go down as another moment when, for me, Fox News’ voice, which can have an ironic, winking mode, made the best of a disaster of its own construction. The network has, after all, chosen to employ Karl Rove, whose super PAC had invested hundreds of millions of dollars trying to elect Mitt Romney, and therefore is someone who was going to be genuinely upset when Romney lost. So upset that he tried to rewrite the narrative in the most insidious, cynical, and practically insurrectionist way possible.

It’s not different than choosing to air a live car chase and then, every once in awhile, having the driver shoot himself on the air. I thought Shepard Smith handled that situation well, too, when it occurred recently. Smith projected both genuine anguish (“Get off, get off, get off, get off, get off, get off! Get off it! Get off it! Get off it!) and seasickness in his apology afterward.

Of course, no one said Fox News has to show car chases when they feel the news is too boring on a given day. And no one made them hire Karl Rove.

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