A cousin of George W. Bush played a key role in the election night decision by Fox News Channel to call the race for the Texas governor, prompting the cable channel to lead a stampede of networks in declaring Bush the president-elect.
John Ellis is a consultant hired by Fox to run its election night "decision desk," the team that analyzes exit poll data and recommends when news executives should project a winner in each state. The decision by Ellis' desk to put Florida in Bush's win column at 2:16 a.m. EST made Fox the first news outlet to call the presidential race. The other networks rushed to follow over the next four minutes.
The current issue of New Yorker magazine says Ellis was on the phone with Bush and his brother, Jeb, that evening, sharing internal data from the network. In a letter to the magazine, however, Ellis denied that he was the source of any improper leaks.
The disclosures are raising questions of impropriety at Fox, which has promoted itself as a counterweight to the supposedly liberal bias in the national media. Roger Ailes, a top strategist in the 1988 and 1992 campaigns for former President Bush, is chairman of Fox News.
Having Ellis in a position to share internal data and influence network projections "certainly looks much too cozy and comfortable for a journalistic organization," said Marvin Kalb, a former television reporter and director of the Washington office of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, where Ellis was a fellow in the early 1990s. "If you have internal data . . . you don't go around sharing that [information] with the politicians."
Fox officials said the final decision to declare Bush the winner was made by John Moody, vice president for news, who oversaw Ellis' analysis unit. But Fox executives were furious over Ellis' alleged leaking of information to Bush. "I doubt he'll be back in 2004," one insider said. "People are . . . livid."
One executive at the network said Ellis' conduct was considered a violation of Fox's promise to keep exit poll data confidential.
Exit poll secrecy has long been a sore point for the networks, which jointly finance a consortium called Voter News Service, which interviews voters leaving polling booths and supplies the survey data to its members starting at 1 p.m. EST on election day. Armed with the data, each network must decide for itself when it can accurately predict how a state will vote.
The decision to call Bush the winner in Florida was a mistake and a historic embarrassment for the national media that all of the major TV networks were forced to retract.
Ellis declined to comment Monday, saying only that he found questions about his integrity "absolutely unconscionable."
In a letter he sent to the editor of the New Yorker this week, Ellis said, "VNS prohibits member companies from sharing exit poll and sample precinct data with non-authorized parties. Although the information leaks out anyway, I and the other members of the Fox News Channel Decision Desk Team obeyed this guideline zealously, precisely because of my relationship with Governor Bush."
He added that although he did speak to the Texas governor twice on election day, he didn't reveal anything Bush didn't already know. He noted that Fox's decision desk team included several Democrats.
Kathleen Frankovic, director of survey information for CBS News and a VNS board member, said the early release of data raises "big, big questions . . . [about] how it's used, is it accurate, [and] are people doing what we promised we would not do?"