Sullivan: The man who told Trump he lost Arizona

Chris Stirewalt lost his job at Fox over his call of Arizona for Biden. Being right was vindication.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

For a guy who made a controversial election-night call and then lost his treasured role with what he has called “the best decision desk in the news business,” Chris Stirewalt appears to have no regrets.

Testifying Monday morning, the former politics editor at Fox News spoke confidently, colorfully and, yes, decisively, about what happened in November 2020 when an erstwhile news organization that has morphed into former President Donald Trump’s propaganda arm went temporarily off script.

Stirewalt and his colleagues on the decision desk made a stunningly early call that challenger Joe Biden had won Arizona. It was only 11:20 p.m. Eastern time, with 73 percent of the vote counted.

They needed both certainty and unanimity to make that call, he told the Jan. 6 select committee. His team relied on the data they had gathered, their knowledge and their experience. They “looked around the room and everybody said ‘yeah,’” he recalled, so they went ahead and moved the crucially important state into Biden’s column; long before any other news organization.

Clear and punchy, Stirewalt’s brief testimony seemed driven by the same quality he extolled on the decision desk: certainty about the evidence-based truth of what he was saying.

“We knew it would be a consequential call,” he said. If Trump indeed lost Arizona, he would face longer odds to win reelection: “Better off to play the Powerball.” Stirewalt was equally blunt under questioning in describing Trump’s chances of winning on a recount or challenge: “None.”

That the Arizona call freaked out Trump World was obvious; having such a verdict, especially coming from his usually dependable cheerleading squad at Fox News, was devastating. The call made it immeasurably harder to put forth the idea that Trump ultimately would prevail, and harder to even pretend that he would. Of course, as we know all too well, that didn’t stop him.

Trump’s anger reportedly prompted his team’s efforts to lobby Fox head honcho Rupert Murdoch to retract the call. And there were even plenty of nonpartisan experts who second-guessed the Fox News decision as having been made too early.

But as the votes continued to come in, other news organizations came around to Stirewalt’s point of view: Trump would lose Arizona. And he did lose the state, by barely more than 10,000 votes, the final tally showed. Stirewalt called it right. Nonetheless, two months later, he was out.

Fox described Stirewalt’s hasty and involuntary departure as part of a post-election realignment of their business and reporting structure. Stirewalt called it a firing.

Murdoch had told colleagues that even though the Arizona call was correct, he thought it was premature and poorly handled; and had hurt the network’s standing with Trump’s most ardent fans by convincing them that Fox was out to get him.

But Stirewalt made it clear Monday that what he did was motivated by the competitive journalistic instinct rather than any desire to throw the election to Biden.

Any journalist watching his testimony recognized the look on the editor’s face as he described how his team processed the data on that long-ago election night to come up with the jaw-dropping conclusion that beat the competition. Stirewalt practically glowed in the midst of that memory, still pleased to death with the conclusion.

“I get that,” historian Heather Cox Richardson tweeted Monday. “When your research works, you’re thrilled.”

It was never about helping achieve a political end, Stirewalt wrote in a Los Angeles Times opinion piece in January 2021. “Being right and beating the competition is no act of heroism; it’s just meeting the job description of the work I love,” he wrote. And yet, “I became a target of murderous rage from consumers who were furious at not having their views confirmed.”

Since leaving Fox, Stirewalt has landed on his feet. He wrote a book critical of today’s journalism across the political spectrum, started a podcast, and joined the media company NewsNation.

Despite the obvious relish for his craft that he displayed on Monday, Stirewalt said that testifying went against his grain in one respect. “The first rule for my vocation is to tell the truth as best you can, and the second is to stay the hell out of the story,” he wrote in a piece published in the Dispatch.

He didn’t do very well Monday with the second item. But on the first, he seems to have delivered quite memorably.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper. Follow her on Twitter @sulliview.

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