Now we know who really screwed up the Presidential election. It wasn’t George W. Bush. It wasn’t Al Gore. It wasn’t Ralph Nader, it wasn’t Voter News Service, and it sure wasn’t those confused folks down in Palm Beach.
It was John Ellis!
That’s right, John Ellis–a political consultant, writer and part-time analyst for the Fox News Channel and, oh yeah, Bush family relative–emerged as America’s latest partisan bogeyman this week after he publicly acknowledged sharing vote numbers with his cousins George and Jeb on election night.
In a post-election interview with The New Yorker ‘s Jane Mayer, Mr. Ellis recalled a series of phone conversations he had with the brothers Bush as the numbers poured in at Fox. “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,” Mr. Ellis said, remembering the moment he told his cuzzies that the numbers said Mr. Gore wasn’t going to win.
Mr. Ellis’ long-distance huddles with his famous cousins probably wouldn’t have been such a big deal if, say, Mr. Gore had won. Or if Fox News hadn’t been the first network to prematurely call Mr. Bush the overall winner, which it did shortly after 2 a.m. Wednesday, soon to be followed by NBC, CBS, CNN and ABC.
But it didn’t work out that way. Gore supporters and critics of Fox News immediately seized upon the news of Mr. Ellis’ communiqués with the Bush camp, pronouncing them proof of the cable network’s long-alleged G.O.P. bias. Media critics were aghast at the appearance of a conflict of interest. Some even suggested that Mr. Ellis–who writes for Fast Company magazine and, until recently, the New York Press –was partly to blame for the overall election mess, since Fox’s call set in motion a chain of events that led Bush supporters to believe their guy had rightfully won the whole enchilada.
Around 8 p.m. on election night, however, Mr. Ellis wasn’t giddily chewing the fat with his brood in Austin. The Observer was inside the Fox News “decision desk” for about an hour that evening, and during that brief time, the tall, thick-shouldered Mr. El lis was hunkered over his V.N.S. terminal, trying to figure out an electoral path to declare Mr. Gore the winner. All the networks, including Fox, had just given Florida to Vice President Gore.
“We’re coming to a conclusion here, which is that Gore is going to win the election,” Mr. Ellis said inside the cramped, noisy room. “I want to know exactly what we need to [call] it.”
Technically speaking, Mr. Ellis wasn’t making the final calls on states that night. That responsibility fell to John Moody, Fox’s vice president of news, editorial. Mr. Ellis would huddle with his three main decision-desk colleagues, discuss how a state was going on the poll numbers, and when they all agreed it had fallen to either Mr. Bush or Mr. Gore, they would relay that information to Mr. Moody. Mr. Moody, in turn, raced between the often-frantic decision desk and a phone in a nearby makeup room, from which he would call the control room–whereupon the called state was announced on the air.
Mr. Ellis’ input no doubt played a major role in those decisions–and given his bloodline, there was clearly the potential for conflict. But that night, Fox News chairman and chief executive Roger Ailes didn’t sound very worried. “He also did this for NBC for years. He’s a professional at this,” Mr. Ailes said of Mr. Ellis. “I haven’t even thought about the relative aspect, because I knew he was part of the decision team for NBC for a number of years, even during the Bush years. Didn’t seem to affect him one way or the other.”
Mr. Ellis also had stopped writing a column for The Boston Globe , partly because he was concerned about appearances (also because he was moving to New York).
Yet, a week after the election, Mr. Ellis found himself at the center of a storm. Some of his colleagues at Fox were backpedaling from him, worried that his phone calls had compromised the network. Mr. Ellis’ status with Fox is under review, according to an internal memo passed out by Mr. Moody. But Mr. Moody said that with news still breaking in Florida, Fox wasn’t going to rush into a decision on Mr. Ellis. “Given that we don’t have a clear Presidential victory yet, any outrage from one political camp or another has to be taken with a large grain of salt,” said Mr. Moody.
Mr. Ellis, for his part, wasn’t talking, other than releasing a letter he wrote to New Yorker editor David Remnick in which he denied leaking exit-poll information to his cousins. In the letter, Mr. Ellis admitted that he did discuss actual voting results with Messrs. Bush and Bush. New Yorker spokesperson Perri Dorset said the magazine hadn’t yet decided how it would respond to Mr. Ellis’ letter; she added that the magazine stood by Ms. Mayer’s piece.
Tonight on Fox News, The Edge with Paula Zahn . Ms. Zahn has remained above the fray. [FNC, 46, 10 p.m.]
Thursday, Nov. 16
Even without the John Ellis contre-temps, the battle between the cable news outlets has been getting pretty feisty in recent months.
Fox News has gleefully taken on the role of the chippy antagonist in the cable news showdown. Once a speck on the landscape, Fox has risen considerably in the ratings this year and recently began celebrating its growth with a bold, near-unavoidable ad campaign touting itself as the ” #1 Network for political coverage .” Those advertising claims–and Fox’s penchant for tub-thumping–have grown from a mild pain to a major source of irritation for the network’s chief competitors, CNN and MSNBC.
Indeed, for some time Fox appears to have taken great pleasure in tweaking its competition, especially CNN. Last year, when the News Corp. news network debuted in Atlanta, it unveiled–complete with marching band–a pair of giant billboards directly across the street from CNN headquarters. Here in New York, and in several other major cities, Fox representatives buy local air time on CNN to run Fox News advertisements.
“It’s a good strategy for us,” Fox News’ vice president of marketing, Jason Klarman, said of the TV ads. “It’s gravy that it somehow seems to irk them.”
Of course, self-promotion and boxer-like braggadocio have long been a staple of network television advertising–Fox certainly isn’t the first news operation to tout its ratings growth. And Fox cannot be held solely responsible for its tempestuous relationship with CNN; when Fox News arrived on the scene, CNN founder Ted Turner famously vowed to squish the upstart news division “like a bug.”
Obviously, Mr. Turner didn’t succeed. And though Fox News is in 24 million fewer homes than CNN–78 million to 54 million–Fox reps have increasingly claimed cable news superiority by pointing to wins in ratings (as opposed to total viewership). They also compare performances of programs that don’t compete directly against each other–Bill O’Reilly’s The O’Reilly Factor and Larry King Live , for example, which run at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. E.S.T., respectively. And in promoting its election night coverage, Fox News combined its total viewership with its viewership on the Fox Network (where the cable coverage was simulcast) to come up with a figure of 6.8 million.
Such promotions have driven representatives at other networks bonkers. But a Turner spokesman downplayed the threat from Fox, pointing to his network’s large audiences during breaking news moments such as this week’s election coverage. “To be honest with you, we consider ourselves to be more in the arena with ABC, CBS and NBC as opposed to a Fox or MSNBC,” he said.
For his part, Fox’s Mr. Klarman vigorously defended his department’s strategies. “It may be bold, it may be brash, but it’s still done with the idea that it’s promoting a news product,” he said.
Well, go see for yourself. At 5 p.m. on MSNBC, Hardball with Chris Matthews. At 8 p.m. on Fox News, it’s The O’Reilly Factor . Then, at 9 p.m., it’s Larry King Live . [CNN, 10, 9 p.m.]
Friday, Nov. 17
Tonight on the Learning Channel, the World’s Most Powerful Explosions. Rumored to contain footage of former President Bush when he thought Jeb had blown it in Florida. [TLC, 52, 9 p.m.]
Saturday, Nov. 18
In the opening scene of the documentary film Dita and the Family Business , 33-year-old filmmaker Joshua Taylor strolls into the sprawling Bergdorf Goodman department store at 58th Street and Fifth Avenue with a camera crew in tow. A salesperson asks Mr. Taylor what he is up to. Mr. Taylor replies that he is filming a documentary about his family.
“Do they shop here?” the salesperson inquires.
“You could say that,” Mr. Taylor answers politely.
Mr. Taylor was being nice. His family did much more than just shop at Bergdorf: They owned it for generations. Mr. Taylor’s great grandfather, Edwin Goodman, co-founded the store with Herman Bergdorf in 1901; Mr. Taylor’s grandfather, Andrew Goodman, was one of the most stylish retail magnates of his time and a fixture of Manhattan’s nightlife.
But Dita and the Family Business is primarily told from the perspective of Mr. Taylor’s grandmother, Dita. Now deceased, the Spanish-born, Cuban-raised matriarch sits before her grandson’s camera, cigarettes aflame, and recounts her often extraordinary life, from her childhood in Cuba to her tumultuous initiation into Manhattan society, to her friendships with everyone from the Duke of Windsor to Ethel Merman.
Mr. Taylor interviewed his grandmother over the course of five weekends, in her penthouse apartment atop Bergdorf. Getting the sometimes difficult Dita to sit down was a challenge, he said. “She would always schedule it so I got her right after she went to the beauty salon,” Mr. Taylor said, laughing.
Mr. Taylor, who has spent most of his adulthood working as an actor, said he grew interested in making a documentary about his family shortly after his grandfather died in 1993. “Suddenly, I found myself looking at my grandmother and thinking, ‘Boy, when she goes, all of this history goes with her,’” Mr. Taylor said.
And what a family history it is. There was Andrew and Dita’s somewhat scandalous marriage, a union Walter Winchell predicted “would never happen.” There was another mini-scandal involving Dita, a baby and a mysterious Italian man. There was the now-legendary story of the Goodmans forcing young Dita to sign a prenuptial agreement, then presenting it to her, torn to shreds, on her first wedding anniversary (at least, that’s one version of the story). There was Andrew and Dita’s first-born, Edwin, whose growing disillusionment with the family business prompted him to abandon a retail career for a position at the lefty radio station WBAI–a controversial job that briefly landed him in jail.
It is through interviews with him and his sisters (one of whom is Mr. Taylor’s own mother) that Mr. Taylor manages to cut through the considerable mythmaking surrounding the Goodman family tree and tell a far less romanticized, but still compelling, story. Indeed, it is Dita’s clearheaded children who do the most to knock down some of the stretched truths involving their forebears.
Mr. Taylor freely acknowledged that Dita and the Family Business is a mostly loving portrait and that its subject matter would have been, in all likelihood, handled more objectively by an outsider. “I had some moments where I was like, ‘God, am I really digging hard enough here?’” Mr. Taylor said. “But I looked at it this way: Wouldn’t you really love to have the opportunity to say your piece about your place in the family?”
The film, which airs tonight on the Metro Channel in New York, took Mr. Taylor four years to make. In the process, he said, he became far more appreciative of his family’s contributions to fashion and retail–a contribution he admits he didn’t fully understand, since the Goodmans sold the store in 1972. (Mr. Taylor did work briefly as a stockboy at Bergdorf Goodman in his teens. “I was kind of working incognito,” he recalled. “I would disappear for an hour and go up to the top of the store and have a fancy crab salad or something with my grandparents and then return to the basement.”)
Mr. Taylor, who said he rarely shops these days at Bergdorf’s, favoring J. Crew and Banana Republic instead, recently premiered the film for family members at the Tribeca Screening Room. “I was nervous as heck,” he said. But overall, he added, the family approved.
Mr. Taylor’s one regret is that he never was able to sit down and film his grandfather before his death. “It was frustrating not to have that opportunity,” the filmmaker said. “I often wondered what that would have been like.”
Dita and the Family Business premieres tonight on the Metro Channel. [MET, 70, 8 p.m.]
Sunday, Nov. 19
On TNT tonight, The Wizard of Oz . In which the curtain is pulled back, revealing Katherine Harris, Florida’s Secretary of State. [TNT, 3, 7 p.m.]
Monday, Nov. 20
Ally McBeal . In tonight’s episode, Ally deliberates a conjugal visit with Robert Downey Jr. [FOX, 5, 9 p.m.]
Tuesday, Nov. 21
Tonight’s episode of Biography explores the life of the Marquis de Sade. [A&E, 16, 8 p.m.]