Martha MacCallum Previews ‘Fraught’ 2020 Vote, Responds to Fox News Critics, and Discusses Challenges of an Election Night Unlike Any Other
After three decades in television news, and 16 years with her current employer, Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum is leading her network’s election night coverage on Tuesday. It’s an opportunity that few in her profession ever get — to serve as a lead anchor on a major network’s election coverage — and one that she’s been working to achieve for as long as she has been in the business.
“Since I was a little kid, I have been following politics, and watching conventions on TV and watching election night coverage with my family,” MacCallum told Mediaite. “It’s really an honor to be in that seat on election night. For me to be one of the people who will call an election and announce the next President of the United States of America is a huge honor, and I’m thrilled to be part of it. It’s an achievement, and it has been a goal of mine.”
MacCallum is filling the high-profile chair occupied in the last two presidential elections by Megyn Kelly. She got there on the strength of her nightly 7 p.m. show, The Story — which has won its timeslot in both total viewers and the key demographic since its debut in 2017, and has, according to Nielsen data, averaged 2.78 million overall nightly viewers in 2020 to date, as well as 538,000 in the demo.
But like everything else in 2020, MacCallum’s road to the big night has been bumpy. The anchor spoke with Mediaite on Tuesday Oct. 20 for this post — meant to serve as a preview for election night coverage. A few days later, MacCallum, her election night co-anchor Bret Baier, and other top figures at the network were forced to quarantine after a passenger on the network’s private flight from the final presidential debate in Nashville back to New York tested positive for Covid-19. A network representative declined to comment, citing the confidential nature of personal health information.
In an internal memo, Fox News Media president Jay Wallace and Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott disclosed coronavirus positives at the network, and said that “only those employees who are critical” to election night coverage will be permitted to work from headquarters in New York.
The lead anchor is as critical as election night personnel gets. And so it’s all systems go for MacCallum and Baier. The network confirmed, in a Thursday press release, that the two will be at Fox News headquarters in New York as planned, and on the anchor desk for a marathon eight hour stint beginning at 6 p.m. ET.
MacCallum is jumping right into the deep end of the pool, as her first election night on the anchor desk stands to be an evening unlike any other. The pandemic has resulted in new voting procedures which stand to complicate the counting in many states. Returns in key jurisdictions such as Pennsylvania could take days. The anchor says she has, and will continue to, ask her viewers to be patient.
“I think the country is aware that this time it may look and feel different and it may be something that lasts over several days, maybe even weeks,” MacCallum said. “We will absolutely be conditioning our viewers that we may not be able to give them an answer by the end of the night.”
Many, though, will be looking for quick answers thanks to President Donald Trump’s repeated insistence that a winner be declared on Tuesday night. His talk of potential voter fraud, as well, has whipped a faction of the electorate into a frenzy.
Asked how Trump’s rhetoric will impact her job Tuesday night, MacCallum said, “I think it’s unfortunate on both sides. I thought when Hillary Clinton said that Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances, I thought that was very heavy-handed as well. So I think that both sides need to really look in the mirror.”
“I grew up in this country reading in history books about other countries where the outcome of a presidential election was something that people scoffed at, that they thought was corrupt, that they couldn’t trust,” MacCallum added. “I never want to see the United States of America have those same kinds of concerns. Obviously, we have a lot of infrastructure to make sure that this vote is reliable and safe. But I would caution both sides to be very careful before they undermine people’s confidence in the election.”
Many in the media industry are looking to Fox News to establish confidence in Tuesday’s outcome.
“Fox News, the president’s favored network, will face enormous pressure to call the election for Mr. Trump,” The New York Times wrote — in a sub-headline on Sept. 27.
“The Fox News Decision Desk Controls the Fate of American Democracy,” read a Sept. 24 headline from Slate.
MacCallum believes such commentary is uncalled for.
“I think those headlines are a bit over the top,” she said. The Fox anchor added, in defense of the network’s news operation, “I would just encourage them to spend five minutes watching how we operate if they have any concerns.”
On Tuesday night, that operation will feature a little-known but crucial Fox News veteran named Arnon Mishkin — the head of the network’s Decision Desk, which is responsible for calling races. Below, read on for an excerpt of our conversation with Martha MacCallum in which she discusses the importance of Mishkin — as well as the role primetime hosts such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson will play on Tuesday night’s broadcast, and the possibility that some viewers might not believe her when she and Baier announce the presidential election winner.
This interview has been edited and condensed for content and clarity.
Mediaite: Arnon Mishkin has gotten quite a bit of attention in recent days — as the subject of a New York Times profile titled, “Trump Wants to Discredit the Election. This Nerd Could Stop Him.” What can you tell us about him and the folks at the Decision Desk and how it’s all going to work?
Martha MacCallum: Arnon’s always been at the center of our coverage, and on the Decision Desk, in our meetings right before we all head down to the set, and we start to get a look at those exit polls. He’s the person who has interpreted some of what they’re seeing, and lays it all out for us. He is a deep well, and we are grateful to have him in that role.
And of course, you don’t want to put the finger on any scale. There’s not ever an example that I can think of we have done that. And every time that [Mishkin and the Decision Desk] have looked at us and said, ‘We’re ready to call this’ … Oftentimes, other networks have called races before we call them. And we’ll be saying to them, ‘What about Ohio? What about Pennsylvania?’ And if they say we’re not ready to go with it, then we’re not ready to go with it. And we’re all on the same page with that. It’s much more important to be right than it is to be first on election night.
Arnon Mishkin is a vital contributor, but he will largely remain off-air. What about the makeup of the on-air panel this year?
I think we have a terrific team. Dana Perino, and Karl Rove, and Juan Williams, and all of us — just a terrific, solid election team. Chris Stirewalt. All of these folks who we all sort of rely on and trust to do a great job.
What about the prime time hosts? Will they have a role? Sean Hannity made a cameo appearance in 2016. Will he and others incorporated this time around?
Absolutely. You’ll see them for sure. They’re a really important part of our team. And they will absolutely be weighing in — just as you’ll see on the other cable networks as well. Just like you’ve got [MSNBC’s] Rachel Maddow on the desk for election night coverage, and plenty of people on the other networks who have very strong opinions.
I think actually at Fox we’re pretty clear between our news division and our opinion folks. I think everybody has a pretty good handle on which side of the line we all come down on. And you’ve got Bret and I at the center, handling the news coverage of the evening, and bringing in the different voices who are important to our viewers. I wouldn’t want to have an election without them weighing in and sharing their thought. And I think our viewers will want to see that 100 percent.
And how about in the field? The network obviously has a large team that will be dispatched around the country. Is some of that tailored to the the idea of election integrity? Is having correspondents in place for voting controversies something that’s on the network’s radar now that otherwise wouldn’t have been?
I think we’re very nimble, and I think that when that when and if that moment happens, where it needs a lot more concentration, we’ll be flexible enough to move to it. The reporters that we have on the ground are great. Peter Doocy’s out there, Jacqui Heinrich’s out there. We’ve got a lot of great people on the ground, and they will be following those voter stories as they happen. But if there’s a place that needs more concentration, or several places that need more concentration, we’ll be on the ground.
Have you thought about the moment where you and Bret look into the camera to announce the next president, and considered the possibility that a segment of the audience might not believe you? How do you plan to address it?
I think you’re right. And I think we’ve seen so much divisiveness and violence across this country. I think everybody’s a little bit nervous about what happens on election night. And I truly hope that the outcome of this election, whatever it is, will help us all get past this moment. I think it’s been fraught even more so because of the virus. I think everybody’s nerves are a little bit more raw than they would be without that.
I think one of the things that my show is particularly good at is being even-handed, and trying to keep everybody with an eye towards the larger picture, and the perspective of the country as a whole. We’re going to have our work cut out for us at night, and we will bring our viewers along with us in that decision. And in announcing that decision. And in making sure that if there are caveats, of there are things that we’re waiting for, things that we’re concerned about, we will bring them with us every step of the way to ensure as much stability, and a peaceful transition of power — for whatever slice of the role that we would play in that picture constitutes.
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