A Bushy-Looking Fox Leading the TV Sheep?

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"We report. You decide." As p.r. pablum, the Fox news network's tagline isn't bad. But as it turns out, its claim to objectivity may be a bit of stretch.

Recent revelations concerning the network's election night coverage have put Fox executives on the defensive, and have raised further questions about the news organization's perceived partisanship.

On Tuesday, Fox news chairman Roger Ailes, whose résumé includes stints as former president Bush's campaign strategist, was struggling to defend his decision to hire George W. Bush's first cousin to run Fox's election night decision desk. The network, which is part of Rupert Murdoch's international media conglomerate, proudly presents itself as an alternative to "mainstream" news outlets — thinly veiled conservative code for "liberal media."

According to the New Yorker magazine, John Ellis (son of President Bush's sister Nancy) was responsible for calling states for either candidate as soon as the numbers were made available, and was therefore responsible for calling the election when it appeared Bush had won Florida — all part of his job description. Well outside that job description, however, lie Ellis's other election night activities: He apparently spent the evening in constant phone contact with Florida governor Jeb Bush and George W. Bush, transmitting updated exit poll numbers and projections down to Austin.

And there is more. When Ellis declared Florida for his cousin, he wasn't just following ABC, CBS and the rest. His call was the first, and appeared to precipitate a television-wide announcement: Bush had won the election. Not that Fox anchor Brit Hume was totally confident as he projected a Bush presidency at around 2:20 a.m. "I must tell you, everybody, after all this, all night long, we put Bush at 271, Gore at 243. I feel a little bit apprehensive about the whole thing. I have no reason to doubt our decision desk, but there it is."

Did Hume, in fact, have reason to doubt his source? Maybe not, but many experts in journalism ethics are raising red flags, arguing Ellis should never have been put on the desk in the first place. "It's beyond belief," says Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The network should not have allowed Ellis to report on this election. As a viewer, after reading this story and reading about Ellis's involvement in calling the race, you canít help but get the idea that this guy's complicit in what's going on now down in Florida."

And although this election's jaw-droppingly close margin seems to be a particularly compelling argument for excluding Ellis, Gottlieb argues it doesn't really make any difference. "Even if this had been a landslide, you don't have a candidate's relative reporting on an election." Interestingly, according to Tuesday's Washington Post, Ellis himself seemed to agree just last year, when he resigned from his position as a political reporter at the Boston Globe. "I am loyal to my cousin.... I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone else outside my immediate family. That being the case, it is not possible for me to continue writing columns about the 2000 presidential campaign."

This graceful admission raises an obvious question: If Ellis, who has worked as a political journalist for the better part of 25 years, understood the ethical dilemma inherent in a candidate's family member writing an opinion column, how could he not grasp the colossal unseemliness in a candidate's cousin declaring a winner in a national election? And how could Fox permit such a blatant conflict of interest, even if, as it says, it didn't know of Ellis's contact with his cousins on election night?

The general public, already somewhat fed up with the media, will no doubt see this as yet another example of why the fourth estate cannot be trusted (and conservatives will probably see finger-wagging from the Washington Post and others as liberal self-righteousness). Though Ellis himself denies any wrongdoing — and there is no direct evidence his role in Fox's broadcast had any permanent damaging effects — in the end, it's Ellis' career that will most likely suffer. Infinite claims of innocence, after all, cannot erase the appearance of impropriety — in an industry where appearances are everything.