Howard Kurtz: Karl Rove challenged his own network's pros on Election Night
The Fox decision team called Ohio for Obama, but Rove refused to accept it
Kurtz points out conservatives challenged accuracy of polls and of the unemployment stats
He says the Rove incident was a case of partisanship in the guise of journalism
Editor’s Note: Howard Kurtz is the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and is Newsweek’s Washington bureau chief. He is also a contributor to the website Daily Download.
As televised theater, it was hard to beat. As political prognostication, it was a head-scratching moment. As partisan warfare, it was nothing short of audacious.
But Karl Rove’s insistence that Barack Obama had not carried Ohio – despite the call by his own network, Fox News, that the president had done just that – represented something larger. It captured, for some long and awkward moments, the refusal of some in the media-and-politics game to accept reality.
And that has been a recurring pattern this year.
We’re not talking here about a bad judgment call by a pundit. Everyone in the commentary business, including yours truly, has made those. If failed predictions were a felony, the jails would be filled with media folks.
Rove, to be sure, is a smart guy. He wasn’t called George W. Bush’s architect for nothing. He helped his guy win two presidential elections. He knows polls inside out.
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But Rove occupies a rather unique perch at Fox, and not just because he jumped from the Bush White House to the role of conservative cable commentator.
Rove, who also has a Wall Street Journal column, helped create two political action committees, American Crossroads and Crossroads Grassroots Political Strategies, that raised and spent about $175 million in this campaign, most of it on television ads promoting Mitt Romney or attacking Obama. He was, in every sense of the word, a full-fledged political player.
But he was also Fox’s most visible contributor, appearing far more often than Sarah Palin, delivering his political insights on shows from morning to night.
Fox isn’t the only news channel to employ active partisans – CNN has a few, too – and media organizations long ago decided to blur the line between journalism and politics.
I know the ties are generally disclosed, but personally, I wouldn’t allow anyone who raises money or holds a party position to be on a news organization’s payroll. Why should viewers think they’re getting anything but one-sided spin?
Still, Rove undoubtedly wants to preserve his reputation as a political seer, which is why it was so stunning when he went rogue on Tuesday night.
It was a moment of high drama.
Fox News, CNN and MSNBC were each in the process of calling Ohio – and thus the presidential race – for Obama. But Rove began arguing with his Fox colleagues.
“I don’t know what the outcome is gonna be, but you shouldn’t, you gotta be careful about calling things when you’ve got something like 991 votes separating the two candidates and a quarter of the vote left to count,” he said. “Even if they had made it on the basis of select precincts, I’d be very cautious about intruding in this process.”
Rove was, of course, wrong; Obama won Ohio, and a second term. But what is striking is that he was challenging the decision-desk professionals at his network in a way that looked like he refused to accept the country’s judgment.
This, unfortunately, has been a recurring theme all year. When Romney was down in the polls, some conservatives complained that media organizations were putting out biased surveys (which led to such sites as unskewedpolls.com). When unemployment dropped in September, even critics as prominent as Jack Welch accused the Obama administration of cooking the books without a scintilla of evidence.
And when Nate Silver, The New York Times’ number-crunching blogger, predicted Obama had a 90% chance of winning, conservatives accused him of bias. Turns out he called the outcome correctly in every state.
Donald Trump, who hardly distinguished himself in this campaign by pushing the birther nonsense, ranted on Twitter on Election Night that Obama’s victory was a “disgusting injustice.” So he not only doesn’t accept that the president was born in Hawaii, he doesn’t accept that Obama won the election fair and square.
I wouldn’t suggest that Rove believes in any of this conspiracy stuff, though he doubled down on Thursday by saying the president won by having “suppressed the vote,” which flies in the face of Obama’s efforts to boost turnout. But for a brief moment on Election Night, we got a glimpse of pure partisanship in the guise of journalism.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Howard Kurtz.