Tuesday, March 4, around 8 p.m., Bill O’Reilly bounded across a chilly studio on the first floor of the News Corp. building on Sixth Avenue toward the desk at the back of the room.
There, the members of the Fox News Super Tuesday II political team—Brit Hume, Juan Williams, Bill Kristol, Nina Easton and Fred Barnes—were wrapping up another back-and-forth session, chewing over the night’s early returns. Mr. Kristol made an observation about the rationality of voters. A producer announced a break.
The team would have a few minutes to stretch its legs. As they backed away from the desk, Mr. O’Reilly approached.
“Throw Juan Williams out of here,” Mr. O’Reilly bellowed with a half-grin.
Mr. Williams and the rest of the Fox politics team chuckled. The longtime NPR contributor gave way to the longtime NPR adversary. A few minutes later, Mr. Reilly was sitting next to Mr. Hume, delivering his five minutes of commentary, before departing for the night.
"NBC News cannot continue to openly root for one presidential candidate, thereby teeing off everybody else in the country, and expect to prosper,” he told his viewers. “Number one, it’s corrupt. If they’re going to be the Obama network, NBC News should say that we’re rooting for Obama."
The Media Mob headed for the elevator. Alexis Glick of the Fox Business Network was waiting in the wings, ready to deliver some commentary on the state of economy. She was dressed in blood red.
Up on the second floor, the Fox News control room was buzzing. There was a much-ignored sign on the door warning no food and drink beyond this point. A man flew by, two slices of pizza precariously stacked on a paper plate.
Marty Ryan, silver-haired control-room warhorse who serves as the network’s executive producer of political programming, stood calmly in the heart of the madness, answering questions, giving orders and deciphering the banks of monitors in front of him.
Dotted among the monitors were the faces of correspondents standing at campaign locations across the country—Texas, Ohio, Rhode Island, Vermont—waiting to be called into action, waiting for some precious airtime.
But just now, they were not playing for the cameras that were trained on them. One reporter was adjusting his seat, another wiped his face with a towel. A blond correspondent ran a brush through her hair. It was like watching a Harry Shearer “Found Object” video, in 10-part harmony. The din of the control room provided the soundtrack—a Robert Altman-like tapestry of densely layered noise.
“Make it tight.”
“Is that better?”
“I have him.”
Of the hundred or so screens, the Media Mob began fixating on one way down in the corner of the room. The screen was labeled “Future.” It was completely dark.
Time to check in with the prognosticators!
Up on the 14th floor, Fox News had set up their “Decision Desk” in a space adjacent to the dot-com newsroom. There a team of stat hounds hunched over laptops, rifled through bags of mini candies (Tootsie Rolls, Reeses Pieces Peanut Butter Cups) and crunched the numbers as they came in.
Michael Barone, a Fox News contributor and the principal big brain behind the Almanac of American Politics, sat in a nearby fishbowl of an office, looking at numbers and seemingly peering into the future.
At 9:19, a bald-headed fellow, sporting glasses and a goatee, piped up. “Call Rhode Island for Hillary.” Everyone nodded and shifted their gazes to a bank of screens on a nearby wall. Sure enough, seconds later, the announcement appeared that Senator Clinton was the projected winner of Rhode Island. A few minutes later, MSNBC and CNN followed with the projection.
“I think she might get the trifecta,” said the man with the Tootsie Rolls.
The lights in the room flickered. Nearby, Bill Hemmer stood in front of Fox News’ latest gadget—a flat, touch-screen monitor capable of displaying voting precincts, delegate counts and all sorts of red and blue bar graphs. The so-called “Bill-Board” got its first test on Super Tuesday. Tonight was its sophomore effort.
Mr. Hemmer, in a sharp navy blue suit, spoke to the camera. Behind him, the Bill-Board displayed the results of an exit poll question: “Is McCain conservative enough?” The Bill-Board gave up the math. Forty-five percent: yes. Forty-six percent: no.
Afterward, Mr. Hemmer came over to say hello. Did the Media Mob want to give the Bill-Board a whirl? The Media Mob did. “Give it a good tap,” said Mr. Hemmer. “O.K., not that hard.”
We began tapping our way through exit poll data, delegate counts, states in play, states out of play, blue states, red states. Another tap: another tool. We began doodling on the screen—à la John Madden—only with our forefinger. We drew a blue smiley face on the state of Texas. Mr. Hemmer seemed only mildly amused.
It was time to keep moving.
Back on the first floor, we entered a brightly lit studio, recently borrowed from the Fox Business Network and renamed “the Strategy Room.” In the center of the studio, a set of stairs descended into a sunken lounge of sorts. The space was round and lined with a padded seating. It was vaguely reminiscent of a 70’s rec room. Dig the red pleather!
Nearby, newly minted Fox News contributor Karl Rove sat at a desk—this one, more or less at sea level—and waited for the end of a break. Throughout the night, the Strategy Room was Web-casting on FoxNews.com.
Kirsten Powers, a Fox News Democratic political pundit, padded into the room and descended into the “Geek Pit.”
“Do you have a doctor of numerology degree like these guys do?” asked Mr. Rove, gesturing at the other political wonks already lounging in the pit. A few minutes later, everyone was deeply immersed in discussing Senator McCain’s possible running mates. “It’s double your trouble with Huckabee,” noted Mr. Rove.
There was another break in the Strategy Room. Mr. Rove, in a playful mood, repeated the studio’s recently coined nickname. “Welcome to the Strategery Room,” said Mr. Rove.
At the desk nearby, Fox News Washington bureau chief Brian Wilson shook his head in amusement. “Now you have me calling it the ‘Strategery Room,’” he said.
The Media Mob wandered back down the hall to check in on Mr. Hume and company. By the time we arrived on set, Mr. McCain was delivering his victory speech. The Fox political anchors were listening intently on their ear pieces and watching on a nearby screen.
“Ask the decision guys if Ohio is going to be called reasonably soon,” Mr. Kristol said to Mr. Hume, off camera.
“They say it’s a ways away,” said Mr. Hume. “Both states are leaning towards Clinton.”
Back on the air, Mr. Kristol posed a larger question.
“Has Obama peaked?” he asked.
The election stretched into the night. There was still no projected winner in Ohio or Texas. “The models get hinky,” said Mr. Hume, off air. “That’s what holds up the projections more so than anything else.”
The Media Mob grew restless and headed back upstairs. At 10:55 p.m. Fox called Ohio for Senator Clinton. Back in the control room, a few minutes later, a producer announced that Mr. Hume needed to take another bathroom break. “Feel free not to track him,” somebody called out.
“Fuck, they just announced Hillary,” somebody yelled.
On one monitor, Ms. Clinton could be seen taking the stage, waving, clapping, waving, clapping. How much more time until the commercial break ended? The moment of suspense came and passed. Mr. Hume got back to his desk; the break ended. As if on cue, Ms. Clinton began her speech.
hours later, at 12:46:30, FNC announced Texas for Clinton. MSNBC and CNN followed a few minutes later.
It was Hillary’s night, the collective apparatus agreed. The race would continue.
In a hallway outside the control room, executives Bill Shine and Joel Cheatwood were talking politics.
"This is what we live for,” said Mr. Shine. “We’re going all the way to Pennsylvania."