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Trump Wants to Discredit the Election. This Nerd Could Stop Him.

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The Fox Corporation these days reminds me a bit of America: The elites have lost control, and partisan noise drowns out almost everything. But there are pockets where traditionalists cling to fading norms.

One of those pockets is a new office on the third floor of Fox’s headquarters on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, known by employees as the “nerdquarium.” That’s where a prickly, bespectacled 65-year-old named Arnon Mishkin and his staff of data-crunching wonks will come to work on Election Day. And this Nov. 3, Mr. Mishkin may be the last bulwark against the most frightening prophecies of electoral insanity.

Mr. Mishkin runs Fox News’s “decision desk,” the team responsible for telling Fox viewers — also known as Donald Trump’s base — who won the election. The team and its sister polling unit are among the few endeavors at Fox that have proven immune to the president’s takeover of the network. Mr. Mishkin is a straight shooter — a registered Democrat who told me he voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, and is paid as a consultant, not as a Fox employee.

“There will be no one putting their finger on the scale in either direction,” he told me with matter-of-fact confidence in an interview on Friday from his Upper West Side home.

Election night is shaping up as a dangerous, high-pressure moment for the country and for television journalists, who traditionally play an outsize role in telling Americans who won our decentralized, locally run national elections. President Trump spent last week working overtime to cast doubt on the validity of the coming election.

But at no place is the tension higher than at Fox, which has served as platform, megaphone and cheerleading squad for Mr. Trump and his counterfactual claims for the better part of four years. And on the night when the stakes are highest, it is up to the unassuming Mr. Mishkin, more than any other individual, to represent reality.

“We’re going to come under enormous pressure,” another top Fox figure told me of election night.

The nightmare scenario goes like this: It’s a close race, and Mr. Trump leads in the early vote count in Pennsylvania, and needs just that state to win the election. Tens of thousands of votes are still untallied, and the counting may take weeks — but Mr. Trump has already declared that he’s been re-elected. He’s demanding that Fox do the same, making calls to Fox Corporation’s co-chairman, Rupert Murdoch, or working back channels to the executive who effectively runs the network, Viet Dinh. Mr. Trump’s most loyal acolytes at Fox, the prime-time hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, are backing the president’s claim on the air. And Fox faces the temptation it often succumbs to: offering its audience the alternate reality it wants.

Credit…Fox News

“There’s real concern about the choice Fox is going to make given its own history,” said Vanita Gupta, the president and chief executive Officer of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which is among the groups pushing journalists to take their time in covering the vote counts. “Are they going to be a state media organ and sabotage our democracy in the process, or are they going to show up as media that is going to be thoughtful and careful about prematurely calling results before all the ballots are counted?”

A Slate headline last week put it bluntly: “The Fox News Decision Desk Controls the Fate of American Democracy.”

I spoke this past week to Mr. Mishkin and other current and former Fox News employees about whether that nightmare situation could play out. Somewhat to my surprise, many said that while they expect Mr. Mishkin to have to compete with Mr. Hannity and others who will echo Mr. Trump’s claims, Fox’s bizarre and chaotic internal politics will probably protect him and the decision desk from any actual interference.

The problem for a meddling president is this: If you want to speak to Fox News — who do you call?

Outsiders often view Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire as a well-oiled machine, but it is, in truth, a shambolic, shoot-from-the-hip organization. These days, it seems more like the creaky court of an aging monarch than a high-powered or efficient corporation.

It’s been unclear who is in charge at Fox since the network’s founder, Roger Ailes, resigned in disgrace in 2016. Is it Mr. Murdoch, 89, who has been weathering the pandemic in his country manor in Oxfordshire and who is often asleep by prime time in the United States? Or his son Lachlan, the network’s chief executive? A better bet may be Mr. Dinh, the little-known but influential insider who runs Fox News’s parent company for the younger Mr. Murdoch. Or perhaps the network’s president, Suzanne Scott, though Fox insiders say she has long since given up on trying to control her on-air talent?

Mr. Mishkin, for his part, operates independently with an eight-man (they are all men) team of statisticians, political scientists, pollsters and journalists. When I asked him who he reports to, he fell silent and then tried to remember who approves his expenses.

“The weird thing is the decision desk doesn’t really report to anyone,” a person familiar with the operation told me, on the condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as undermining Fox’s attempts to present itself as a normal news organization. Mr. Mishkin said that executives in Fox’s control room can “kick the tires” when he makes a call. (Mr. Mishkin’s team not only declares a winner of the presidential contest, it calls the results in individual states based on live vote tallies and data analysis.) Fox’s senior executive vice president of corporate communications, Irena Briganti, who participated in my call with Mr. Mishkin, said the decision desk is part of the news division.

Mr. Mishkin and Fox’s chief pollster, Dana Blanton, are part of the wonky, reality-based community of election nerds who populate similar decision desks and polling operations across the media. Mr. Mishkin and Ms. Blanton have also led the charge to create an alternative to traditional exit polls, the large surveys of voters conducted before and on Election Day called VoteCast, in partnership with The Associated Press. The emergence of Twitter has made much of their work transparent to anyone who wants to follow their abstruse if enthusiastic Election Day debates about historical voting patters in key precincts in Waukesha County, Wis. And it is clear that Fox’s operation is well-regarded by its peers.

“Arnon and all the people working on their data are really scrupulous, and I think they do a very good job,” says Ariel Edwards-Levy, the HuffPost’s polling editor.

Mr. Mishkin came to Fox in 1998 with an elite résumé — Andover, Yale, Harvard Business School — and a background in political polling. He got his start working for the New York political consultant David Garth, who helped elect Mayors Edward I. Koch and Rudy Giuliani and advised a local developer named Donald Trump. Mr. Garth also worked for Mayor Tom Bradley of Los Angeles in his failed race for governor of California in 1982. That election gave birth to the idea of a “Bradley effect,” in which white voters lie to pollsters about their intention to support a Black candidate, concealing their racial prejudice and overstating the candidate’s standing. Not everyone believes that happened to Mr. Bradley, but Mr. Mishkin said he learned back then that voters disguise their feelings to pollsters. Sometimes they describe themselves as undecided rather than acknowledging that they are backing a “socially undesirable” candidate — which, he said, helps explain why polls failed to predict Mr. Trump’s victory in 2016.

ImageFox’s headquarters on Sixth Avenue in Manhattan. Outsiders often view Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire as a well-oiled machine, but it is, in truth, a shoot-from-the-hip organization.
Credit…Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Mr. Mishkin kept his Fox role more or less secret for years because he didn’t want it to interfere with his partnership at Boston Consulting Group, where he advised media companies like Forbes and The Associated Press on internet marketing and strategy. He quietly took over at Fox when his friend and predecessor, John Ellis, George W. Bush’s first cousin, stepped aside after the messy 2000 election.

Many of Mr. Mishkin’s friends and business partners told me they had no idea he was even at Fox until election night 2012, when an unexpected and memorable drama unfolded on air: Karl Rove, a Fox commentator, was emphatically objecting to the decision desk’s call that Barack Obama would win Ohio, and thus, be re-elected. As Mr. Rove fulminated, an anchor, Megyn Kelly, walked off the set, cameras in tow, down a long corridor to Mr. Mishkin’s operation, and demanded to know if he was confident in his call.

An unwavering if not-quite-camera ready Mr. Mishkin, his hands in his pockets, calmly pronounced himself “99.95 percent” certain that Mr. Obama had won. Fox stuck with his call — and with reality.

“It was like Clark Kent and Superman — I didn’t know he was central to that until Megyn walked down the hall,” said Jim Kennedy, the senior vice president for strategy and enterprise development at The Associated Press, who has worked with Mr. Mishkin as a consultant for years. “That’s when I realized — that’s Arnon.”

Mr. Mishkin was running the desk with equal confidence in the summer of 2016, when, a former colleague said, he and his team were dismissive of Mr. Trump’s chances. Eric Bolling, then a Fox Business host who would visit their “nerdquarium” to argue Mr. Trump’s case, complained that the nerds weren’t taking the possibility of a Trump victory seriously enough, the former colleague said. Mr. Mishkin says that, to the contrary, he took Mr. Trump’s prospects so seriously that one of his daughters told him that he was beginning to sound like the innumerate Trump booster Bill Mitchell.

This time around, Mr. Mishkin has been skeptical of Mr. Trump’s chances on social media and in occasional Fox appearances, echoing Ms. Blanton’s polls. One of his friends told me that he’s expressed frustration that Fox won’t put those views on the air. When I asked him about that, he switched to consultant-speak. “As media companies become more and more reliant on subscription revenue, they evolve to telling the readers what they want to hear, and I think that’s true of frankly every journalistic organization in America,” he said.

Mr. Mishkin told me nobody at Fox ever asked him who he voted for in 2016. Now the question is whether the network will let him do his job when it really matters, on election night. Last time around, 12 million viewers tuned in. Ms. Kelly, who is now the host of an independent podcast, said she was confident he would.

“That night, you’re going to be able to trust who’s out there because it’s run by the journalists at Fox News,” Ms. Kelly said.

If that doesn’t give you total confidence, Mr. Mishkin’s friends say his unbending personal qualities ought to. This is a man who, after asking for a show of hands from his team, confidently faced down Mr. Rove.

“It wouldn’t matter who’s running Fox or what Donald Trump wants,” said his business partner and a Yale connection, Samuel O.J. “Jock” Spivy. “What Arnon is interested in is who is the winner.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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