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28 September 2020 14:54

This has happened before, on Election Night, on Fox News.

Fox News's influence over American politics remains unmatched. (People don't write best-selling books about the inner workings of PBS.) Its nightly audience is one and a half times that of MSNBC and nearly twice that of CNN. After four years of "fake news" slurs by the president and others, Fox enjoys a unique space: In the eyes of millions of Americans, and particularly Trump voters, if you see it on Fox News, it has to be true. On November 3, the network's framing of the story may help alleviate nationwide chaos—or sow it. Read: Do you speak Fox?

The Fox News Powder Keg

In lieu of its usual prime-time block of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham, Fox turns to its nonpartisan anchors on election nights to project objectivity. Baier and Wallace will be back behind the desk this year, and Martha MacCallum will be in Kelly's seat. There is no reason to believe that one of these hosts will go rogue and preemptively yell "TRUMP WINS!" at 9 o'clock. But it is crucial that they level with their audience about what is really happening with the numbers. Wallace has challenged Trump at various stages of his presidency, and will be the one to watch, tonally, as state projections trickle in. In July, Wallace asked the president whether he would accept the results of the election. "Look, you—I have to see. No, I'm not going to just say yes. I'm not going to say no," Trump replied. Speaking with reporters at the White House Wednesday night, Trump refused to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and other swing states could be too close to call before midnight. Pennsylvania's results may not be available for days. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that mail-in votes will be accepted through 5 p.m. on November 6, three days after polls close. Mail-in voting appears to be the biggest variable this year, and when the Fox anchors periodically pass the mic to conservative commentators, viewers are likely to be pummeled with anti-vote-by-mail propaganda. On Thursday, Carlson seized the alleged voter-fraud narrative. "If all the votes are counted in one night, no one will have time to issue rulings that throw out ballots they don't like. That's why judges in Pennsylvania and Michigan want poll workers to count votes for WEEKS after election day," Carlson said on his show. "It'll be a disaster, we know that for certain." Later that night, Trump tweeted, "Democrats are Rigging our 2020 election!" alongside a clip from Carlson's broadcast. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 61 percent of Republicans who only consume talk radio and/or Fox News say mail-in-ballot fraud "is a major problem." (Trump voted by mail last month.) Baier, Wallace, and MacCallum might play it straight, but other voices on Fox are not held to the same standards. As the hours tick by, Fox guests will be free to interpret whatever election data happen to be available, then frame the information as favorable to Trump. Millions of Americans will hear these arguments, as will the president. The Trump campaign may also influence talking points that make it directly to air. This has happened before, on Election Night, on Fox News.