John Ellis, first cousin of potential Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, is an executive at Fox Business Network, Politico reported. Ellis made headlines for his controversial role heading Fox News' decision desk during the 2000 election, when the network was the first to call Florida for another Ellis cousin, George W. Bush. Ellis also once recused himself from political commentary due to his “loyalty” to George Bush.
Even with possible presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson now off the Fox payrolls, the Fox empire has ongoing potential ethical conflicts surrounding its 2016 presidential coverage.
In The Loudest Voice In The Room, Gabriel Sherman's 2014 biography of Fox News chief Roger Ailes, Sherman reports that Ellis was hired in 2013 as a vice president of programming for Fox Business. Politico noted Ellis' role in a February 3 post that included a Fox spokesperson's statement that Ellis “has no involvement with political news, of any kind, for either FOX Business or FOX News Channel.” (According to the spokesperson, Ellis' title is “vice president of program development.” )
Ellis' leading position at a major media company while his cousin explores a presidential run is troubling given how his family's political ambitions have previously overlapped with his media work. Ellis was hired as a consultant by Fox News to run its 2000 election night decision desk, interpreting internal exit poll data available to media outlets and helping the network make calls on which presidential candidate had won each state. That night, Fox News became the first to call Florida for George W. Bush -- as the Los Angeles Times explained, “the other networks rushed to follow over the next four minutes.”
While Fox and the other networks would later retract the calls for Bush, Sherman explains that Fox News making the call for him helped entrench the narrative that he had won the election, leaving Democrats with “a hopelessly confusing argument” as the fight over results played out for the next several weeks:
For the next thirty-three days, from the contested network calls to the Supreme Court's decision to halt a statewide recount, Fox News largely stuck to the story line the channel authored on election night: George Bush was the president; Al Gore and the Democrats were sore losers, trying to steal it from him. Millions of Americans on election night watched television news anchors declare Bush the victor. The media reality had created its own reality. The Democrats were left with a hopelessly confusing argument. Just what the hell was a butterfly ballot, anyway?
Controversy emerged after Ellis gave a post-election interview to New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer touting how he had repeatedly been on the phone with his cousins George W. Bush and then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush throughout election night, sparking concerns that he had violated media rules by sharing internal polling data with his cousins. (Ellis responded to the New Yorker in a letter claiming that while he had been on the phone with both Jeb and George Bush on election night, he and other members of the Fox News team followed the guidelines against leaking data “zealously, precisely because of my relationship with Governor Bush.” )
Sherman's The Loudest Voice runs through the events of that election night in detail. While Ellis later wrote an article touting how he had made the Bush call after closely assessing the internal data, Sherman reported that Cynthia Talkov, a fellow member of the decision desk, “did not observe him studying the statistics on the screen.”
Instead, Ellis allegedly made the recommendation to call Florida for Bush after speaking to both George and Jeb Bush. According to Talkov, Ellis made a final suggestion to the team that they make the call after his “eyes lit up” following a conversation with Jeb, declaring, “Jebbie says we got it! Jebbie says we got it.” (While he reportedly gave other decision desk members an opportunity to object to his call, nobody did.)
After Ellis' conflict of interest became national news, both he and the network faced widespread criticism, including from within Fox. The week after the election, The New York Times cited “senior executives” at Fox News arguing Ellis had “misused his role with the network, perhaps damaging its reputation.” Similarly, in the Los Angeles Times, Jeff Leeds reported that while network VP John Moody had been in charge of the final decision on declaring Bush the winner in Florida, “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.'”
On The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly railed against the hypocrisy of other media outlets targeting Fox when they have their own conflicts of interest, but nonetheless repeatedly criticized Ellis, saying, “He should not have been talking to anybody on election night. It tees me off.”
Fox launched an internal review of Ellis' conduct. But as Sherman lays out in Loudest Voice, a few months later, Fox News chief Roger Ailes appeared at a House of Representative hearing alongside executives from other outlets to assess the media's election night failings, and devoted a significant portion of his opening remarks to defending Ellis and the network from allegations of impropriety. Ailes pointed to Ellis' years of journalism experience and labeled him a “consummate professional.”
In Ailes' telling, Ellis' closeness to his cousins was actually a net benefit, because he “has very good sources.” “We at Fox News do not discriminate against people because of their family connections,” he claimed. Ailes also asserted that the network's internal review had “not found one shred of evidence” that Ellis had leaked data to his cousins.
Despite the laudatory words from Ailes, Sherman reports that Ellis resigned from the network around the same time, only to be hired by Fox Business years later in 2013. Ellis has held other media jobs, including a recent stretch as a political editor at Business Insider.
As numerous commentators later highlighted, prior to the election night controversy, Ellis had written a column for the Boston Globe recusing himself from writing about the 2000 election because readers would be unable to trust him to be impartial due to his relationship with his cousin. From The Nation:
Many commentators expressed astonishment that Fox would hire a person so closely related to one of the two principal candidates to head its decision desk. Moreover, Ellis had explicitly recognized his own bias the year before, when he was a columnist for the Boston Globe. He explained in a July 3, 1999, op-ed column that he had to stop writing about the 2000 presidential campaign because “I am loyal to my cousin, Gov. George Bush. I put that loyalty ahead of my loyalty to anyone outside my immediate family.... There is no way for you to know if I am telling you the truth about George W. Bush's presidential campaign because in my case, my loyalty goes to him and not to you.”