Updated at 7:30 p.m. ET on September 29, 2020
Was it really happening? Even Fox News couldn’t decide. Just after 8:30 p.m. on November 8, 2016, Fox’s Chris Wallace tried to articulate what the world was seeing. “We’re all … at least, I’m coming to the conclusion tonight—conclusion’s the wrong word—open to the possibility …” Wallace began: “Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States.” Megyn Kelly erupted in laughter beside him. It was an alien sentence, a string of words that didn’t belong together. Wallace laughed too. “I said it’s just a possibility!”
Most people use the word chaos to describe the night of Trump’s election. But every major network—including Fox News—was extremely cautious before declaring him the winner. It wasn’t until 2:40 a.m. Wednesday morning when Fox anchor Bret Baier squared to the camera for his sweep-of-history monologue. Pennsylvania, a blue state in every presidential contest since 1992, had flipped red. Fox cut to a sea of bobbing MAGA hats inside the Midtown Manhattan Hilton, just up the street from the studio. Shock snuck through Baier’s delivery: “What started off as unlikely, impossible, is now … reality.”
This year, with an expected surge of mail-in ballots due to the pandemic, we may not know anything definitive for days. As my colleague Barton Gellman wrote, there is a blueprint for Trump to never concede should any shred of doubt remain about the outcome. Television executives have no “gentleman’s agreement” about how to handle this scenario. And at no network is the absence of a playbook more consequential than at Fox News. It doesn’t matter how CNN and MSNBC play this election: Fox will control the narrative.