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Karl Rove’s 2012 meltdown on Fox News was quite revealing in hindsight

Watching Mitt Romney lose the presidential race from inside Arizona GOP headquarters offered a clue to what Fox News would become.


Newly released court filings in Dominion Voting Systems' lawsuit against Fox News only add to the pile of evidence exposing the network as a farce.

Case documents publicly released on Tuesday reveal more text exchanges that suggest Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham promoted Donald Trump's 2020 election lies despite appearing to suggest in private that the claims were baseless. (Fox News denies any wrongdoing and is vigorously contesting Dominion's lawsuit.)

For me, these revelations evoked a timely personal memory that's helpful in putting Fox News in its proper context as a propaganda arm of the Republican Party. And with that: I'd like to tell you what Sen. Mitt Romney, GOP strategist Karl Rove and a room full of right-wingers taught me about conservative fragility ... and Fox News' role in it.

*begin dream sequence*

Let’s go back in time to roughly a decade ago. 

It’s election night in November 2012, and the setting is the Arizona GOP's watch party in downtown Phoenix.

I was a college reporter at the time, granted access to the watch party for a course at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, and I took full advantage. I remember thinking the hors d’oeuvres — bland cheese and crackers, I believe — were lacking for a gathering of Arizona’s conservative elites. But I made do. (Republicans were big on austerity then. I guess flavor was first on the chopping block.) 

There I was: a tall, Black progressive in a room full of Mitt and Ann Romney lookalikes — some besuited, some bejeweled, and others khaki’d down to the socks.

Rest assured, I was gleeful over the opportunity to watch the evening unfold as the target of their angst — Barack Hussein Obama — was declared the winner of the presidential race.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the observations I made that day would become useful a decade later — in the present day — with Fox News at the fore of a more prolonged phase of election denialism. 

You almost certainly saw Rove’s televised meltdown on Fox News that night, as he refuted the network's call that Romney had lost Ohio. 

But unless you were at a Republican watch party at the time, you likely missed the discouraged faces. The thinning herd of Republicans holding out hope. The overturned “Romney 2012” posters that peeked out from underneath the dining tables, in stacks that grew by the minute. You likely missed the empty words of encouragement from Arizona lawmakers to fellow conservatives whose hopes had all but petered out late into the evening. 

“Keep the faith,” said Arizona's secretary of state, Ken Bennett, around 9 p.m. (nearly midnight on the East Coast). Around that time, I and others were growing a bit impatient with Romney’s delayed concession. 

Romney’s team postponed their scheduled concession speech as they waited for Fox News executives to dismiss Rove’s baseless objection to the Ohio call, The Boston Globe reported. That gives you a sense of how gripped they were by election denialism even then and the key role Fox News played in encouraging those feelings.

The evening taught me about Republicans’ desperate longing for an alternate reality, one of their own creation. Surely, Republicans had denied election results prior to Rove’s meltdown. By 2012, the conservative movement had spent around a half-decade spinning conspiracy theories about Obama’s purported ineligibility to serve as president — another form of election denial. But in my view, the 2012 Fox News fiasco was a major moment in the network’s history, which is to say it’s a significant moment in America’s political history. 

It showed us the pitiful reluctance among right-wingers to accept inconvenient truths about their party, and Fox News’ willingness — eagerness even — to capitalize on it. The Dominion accusations seem to prove that problem has only gotten worse.