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Bush's Cousin Monitored Vote for Fox News

By JEFF LEEDS, Times Staff Writer

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?"

-- from L.A. Times (, November 14, 2000


Fox executive scrutinized for relationship to Bush

- - - - - - - - - - - - By David Bauder

Nov. 14, 2000 | NEW YORK (AP) -- Fox News Channel is investigating whether an election night consultant related to George W. Bush provided his cousin's campaign with insider exit poll data.

Meanwhile, the network downplayed John Ellis' role in helping Fox News Channel declare at 2:16 a.m. on Wednesday that Bush had won the presidency.

Ellis was working on a temporary contract and his status is under review, said John Moody, Fox News Channel vice president for news and editorial quality.

Ellis, a first cousin to the Texas governor, was the director of Fox's decision team on election night. He was responsible for interpreting election data and helping Fox News Channel declare states for either Bush or Al Gore.

"He was hired by Fox because of his ability, not his bloodline," Moody said. Ellis worked for 11 years at NBC News and had an excellent reputation as an elections returns analyst, he said.

The New Yorker magazine reported that Ellis had frequent phone conversations with Bush and his brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, on election night, letting them know how the vote was going.

Fox is examining whether those conversations violated rules set by Voter News Service restricting when exit poll information could be released. VNS is a consortium that conducts the surveys for five television networks and The Associated Press.

Ellis, who would not comment, acknowledged in a letter to The New Yorker that he spoke with George W. Bush twice on the afternoon of Nov. 7, but did not share any exit poll data.

"I did tell him I thought the race would be close overall, but he was already well aware of that," Ellis said in the letter.

Ellis, whose mother, Nancy Ellis, is the sister of former President George Bush, acknowledged speaking frequently with both cousins in the evening, but about vote results, not exit poll information. Other members of Fox's election night team were communicating with Gore's campaign, he said.

By about 2 a.m., the statistics were looking good for Bush, and The New Yorker said this was reflected in Ellis' phone conversations.

"It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth, me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other the President- elect," Ellis said in the magazine. "Now, that was cool."

Although Ellis was part of the team calling Florida, and thus the election, for Bush, Fox News Channel said Moody made the final decision. ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN all made the same call within four minutes.

By two hours later, each network had rescinded its declaration, and the Florida results are still in dispute.

Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute in Florida, said he found Ellis' conversations with his cousins while working at a news agency troubling. He called the incident a black mark on Fox's reputation.

"His connection with them is so profoundly personal that I don't see that it's possible for him to wear a legitimate, detached, professional observer-analyst hat," Steele said.

-- Bush Calls Win for Bush (bushcallswin@for.bush), November 14, 2000.

As I recall, the networks called Florida for GORE while it made a difference because the polls were still open, and actual votes could be changed. The call for Bush came long after all polls were closed nationwide, and changed no votes at all.

Doesn't anyone else remember this?

-- Flint (, November 14, 2000.

Flint, people selectively remember and selectively forget.

-- dinosaur (, November 14, 2000.

The official agency VNS called Florida for Gore, and the VNS did NOT call Bush.

-- That's the point (gore@won.florida), November 14, 2000.

Fox guarding the henhouse

By hiring George Bush's cousin to run a crucial part of its election coverage, the right-wing Fox Network hits a new low in conflict of interest.

- - - - - - - - - - - - By Eric Boehlert

Nov. 15, 2000 | Why didn't the Fox News Channel hire George Will to man its Election Night Decision Desk? Or Peggy Noonan or William Safire? Hell, why not just go right to the source and hire George W. Bush himself?

These aren't rhetorical questions. Because Fox has made it perfectly clear that it sees nothing wrong with hiring an active George Bush partisan -- who also just happens to be his cousin -- to run a crucial part of its election desk.

John Ellis, a cousin of Bush, helped make the decision to finally (and erroneously) call Florida for Bush in the wee hours of Election Night. The call, the first by any network, created the false impression that Bush had won the general election. Ever since, the Bush camp has been playing the "we won" card; Fox's call made it a participant in the election, not merely an observer.

But the fact that it was a close relative of one of the candidates who helped make the call doesn't trouble Rupert Murdoch's right-wing cable network in the least. To the rest of the journalistic community, it may represent a new low in conflict of interest, but to Fox, hiring a man who recently wrote "I am loyal to my cousin, Governor George Bush of Texas. I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone else outside my immediate family" is sound editorial policy. The only thing that troubles Fox is that Ellis, a vocal Clinton and Gore critic, violated company policy by swapping proprietary information with cousins George and Jeb (that stands for John Ellis Bush) in phone conversations on Election Night.

In an interview with the New Yorker's Jane Mayer, Ellis bragged about how he spent much of Election Night on the phone with his cousins talking strategies and exit-polling. Mayer deftly lets Ellis hang himself with his own self-important words: "At 2 a.m. Ellis called his cousins and told them, 'Our projection shows that it is statistically impossible for Gore to win Florida.' It was just the three of us guys handing the phone back and forth -- me with the numbers, one of them a governor, the other the president-elect. Now, THAT was cool."

It was also a violation of company policy. The data Ellis was reportedly swapping with the Bush camp (post-New Yorker, he now denies it) came from Voters News Service, a media-backed consortium that gathers crucial, hush-hush voting information on Election Day. According to a Boston Globe news report during the primary season, "Fox News chairman Roger Ailes warned staffers to keep exit poll results to themselves and reiterated Fox's policy not to 'broadcast, publish or disseminate outcome projections' based on exit poll data before poll closings."

Ailes, of course, is the former Republican political image-maker who in his earlier incarnation coached George W. Bush's father.

On Monday, when the New Yorker hit newsstands, Fox News vice president John Moody admitted that Ellis had erred, but defended hiring him, suggesting it would have been unfair not to hire him simply because of who he was related to -- a remarkably genial interpretation of conflict of interest. By Tuesday, after the revelations of Ellis' information-trading, Moody came down harder, saying that Fox was pondering disciplinary action against Ellis for misusing his position of power at the channel.

Since Ellis was working for Fox as a consultant on a 30-day contract, that point seems moot.

But Ellis isn't just a Bush cousin who happens to work in television and stumbled into an awkward position on Election Night. He's a former Gingrich foot soldier, a raging partisan who is steeped in the Clinton-hating tradition of the far right. (That's something the Los Angeles Times, Associated Press, New York Times even the New Yorker itself have failed to report in recent days.) Fox, of course, knew that.

The cable network describes Ellis as a "number cruncher." But that bland description doesn't exactly fit the Republican attack-dog columns Ellis penned during most of the '90s for the Boston Globe, and more recently for the right-wing New York Press.

To Ellis, President Clinton is an "amoral" "sexual predator" who occupies "a morally berserk universe." Under Clinton's depraved leadership, Ellis wrote, America faces a grim fate: "It will get worse before it gets better, because the truth is, it will never get better until Bill Clinton is gone."

There wasn't a flimsy Clinton-hating conspiracy that Ellis didn't sign onto. Chinese spying, Whitewater, Vince Foster, hush money. Watch here as Ellis goes 0-for-6 in just one Clinton-bashing paragraph: "He lied about Whitewater. He lied about Castle Grande. He lied about the firing of the White House travel office personnel. He lied about his staff's mishandling of FBI files. He lied about the circumstances surrounding the suicide of White House counsel Vince Foster. He lied about a vast White House effort to hush up former assistant attorney general and convicted felon Webster Hubbell."

As the Monica Lewinsky story began to break, Ellis was positively breathless in that Matt Drudge kind of way: "The end could come with astonishing speed. Senior Democratic Party officials were already beginning to speak of how they might execute the president's departure. It's over. Clinton is finished. The rest is endgame."

One week later, more of Ellis' keen prognostication was on display: "There are reports all over Washington that Clinton is planning to fire Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr. More shoes are expected to drop in the various Clinton investigations."

Ellis wasn't above using his columns to flak for his cousin, either. Marveling at Bush's reelection win in Texas, Ellis (who usually informed readers about his family connection), wrote, "The scope of Bush's victory left seasoned professionals in awe." It certainly seemed to leave Ellis in awe, as evidenced by the following heart- drenched effusion: "Bush loves his life. He loves his wife and daughters. He loves his family and friends. He loves his job. He loves his home. He loves Texas, a state that is a nation unto itself. When he wakes up in the morning, he can hardly wait to get to work. "

Fox News execs say they didn't hire Ellis because of his "bloodline." They must not have hired him for his political foresight, either, because his crystal-ball record is abysmal.

On the eve of the '98 congressional elections, Ellis, like every other GOP true believer, was confident that "Clinton is to the Democratic Party what the Titanic was to its passengers. He's taking everybody down with him." Wrong. Fed up with the impeachment hearings, voters dealt the GOP a humiliating blow.

Hillary's Senate campaign in New York? "She will not win because her candidacy isn't about New York, or the people who live here, or what she might do for them. It's about her. The moment New Yorkers collectively understand this -- that they're being used -- will be the moment that her candidacy curdles. What might have been 'you go girl' will become 'just go away.'"

Imagine how Ellis felt working the Fox News Decision Desk when it had to call the New York Senate race as a lopsided win for the first lady.

As for Gore, Ellis wrote this summer that he was a "goner," that his advisors would never allow the vice president to select a Jewish running mate, and that, barring a dramatic shift, there was "no Electoral College math that works" for him.

So let's get this straight. Fox hired a partisan Bush cousin -- who thinks Gore's campaign practiced "stupid politics," that Hillary Clinton is "immoral" and her husband "loathsome" -- to run a crucial part of its election coverage. He spent Election Night on the phone with the Republican candidate and his closest advisors reportedly swapping embargoed voting data. And he was able, through his flawed call of Florida, to create the false impression that Bush had won the election.

Who needs a vast right-wing conspiracy when you've got a vast right- wing network?

-- Dirty tricks (, November 15, 2000.

Actually, Flint, *I* remember that. But I also remember they took Florida away from Bush, and some polls (not in FL?) were still open.

But I just can't help but wonder what the Republican reaction would be if the tables were turned.....{{giggle}}.

-- Patricia (, November 15, 2000.

grumble.....grumble.....stupid #$%^& brain cells.....

That SHOULD read:

"But I also remember they took Florida away from GORE...".

-- Patricia (, November 15, 2000.


On the whole I doubt either call was particularly influential, or that making premature calls the other way would have made much difference.

I think the media will always try to "scoop" one another this way, and statistical ties will always cause problems as a result. But these wacko conspiracy theorists are as loony as ever.

-- Flint (, November 15, 2000.

True, Flint; it seems Carlos was right ..... it is starting to feel like it did last year around this time.

Some things never change.

-- Patricia (, November 15, 2000.

At work I heard the suggestion that the early call for Gore to take Florida was an attempt to encourage some west coast voters to believe it was safe to vote for Nader because Gore was winning without their help. Presumably there were Nader supporters delaying placing their vote in case the race looked close in which case they might feel obligated to go for the lesser of two evils. Did Bush's cousin make this call too?


-- dandelion (golden@pleurisy.plant), November 16, 2000.

A crystal ball would be nice. Unfortunately, the media (not just Fox, Cnn and the rest are responsible) had made news instead of reporting it. I see nothing wrong in what Fox did. Wow, we have one partisan in the network and it's called a right wing conspiracy. As I recall the other networks decided (for whatever reason) to call it for Bush. So what? Then of course we all know that another partisan journalist (oh I forget he was part of the Gore campaign and therefore his partisanship is excusable, sarcasm), jump to Gore to tell him to stop the concession speech. Did he report the news or make the news? Yes, we all know the answer. It was a tight race and now we have the Gore campaign contesting it. How we got here is based on a number of events unfolding and we can point the finger anywhere to find blame.

-- Maria (, November 16, 2000.

Hawk, where ya been?

-- Curious (, November 16, 2000.

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