Succession’s election-night episode brought millions of viewers closer to the election of 2016 than anyone wants to go. The series has treated the Fox News stand-in ATN mostly as an off-screen abstraction, but with the story nearing its end, we finally went inside the belly of the right-wing beast and saw just how much damage the Roys’ sibling power struggles can inflict on the entire country. In “America Decides,” supporters of the extreme right-wing presidential candidate Jeryd Mencken set fire to 100,000 Democratic-leaning absentee ballots, casting the outcome of a pivotal state into doubt. This also allows ATN’s CEOs, who trust Mencken to favor their interests, to shift the political winds in his direction. The fact that their maneuvering might result in a white nationalist becoming the most powerful person on the planet barely seems to faze them, nor does the permanent damage they might do to public confidence in the electoral system. It’s a sobering vision of how easily the media apparatus can be twisted by the wills of its ultra-wealthy owners, with some frightening if exaggerated resonances with real life.
To help process the show’s most nerve-jangling episode and separate the fiction from the facts, we turned to Brian Stelter, the former host of CNN’s Reliable Sources and the author of both 2020’s Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth and the forthcoming Network of Lies: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Sam Adams: The initial impressions I heard from people watching this episode tended to involve the word traumatized quite a lot. What was your reaction to it?
Brian Stelter: Well, not traumatized. To me this episode was an amalgamation of 2016, 2020, the potential of 2024—and just total, utter fiction. I’ve heard people say elements of the 2020 election as well. The way I view it mostly was as liberals’ fears of how network projections could go wrong.
The way I described it to people who hadn’t seen it yet was as if Fox News’ Arizona call in 2020 had gone the other way—if they’d shifted the narrative toward the right-wing candidate instead.
It seemed like the writers were trying to turn the Fox Arizona call for Biden on its head. And the race itself was more 2016-ish, it being the first time Trump was going to be elected, probably the only time.
Right. Mencken is this fringe candidate who comes out of nowhere six months before the election.
Who nobody believes could win, and pulling it off. Stepping back, I think America’s television networks do play a pivotal role, not in electing the president, but in creating a consensus around the election of the next president. I think that is so interesting and deserves a lot more scrutiny. And it actually got a lot more scrutiny in 2020 because of Fox and Trump. 2020 was the first time that I saw folks on the outside thinking through and understanding the roles of the networks, because it’s a historical role. It’s the major networks plus the Associated Press, so it’s been going on for a long time. And not just the presidential cycles; the AP calls a lot of local races. But rarely is there any kind of scrutiny or discourse around who does it and why. I think in 2020 there was progress made on that front, but there’s still a lot more to be said and learned about it. That’s where the first day of election week 2020 comes into play with Succession. Arizona will always be argued about. We know that Trump got furious, but on that evening, Fox did not flinch.
The ATN news apparatus gives in pretty readily to Roman and Tom’s demands that they call Wisconsin for Mencken. Even Decision Darwin basically complies, although he asks for a graphic to explain that he’s calling the state but he’s not really calling it.
In the real world, these decision desks are truly insulated from corporate or political pressure. What I find interesting about the Succession world is that there are networks competing with their version of Fox from the right, making election calls. In the real world, Newsmax and OAN don’t give a hoot. They don’t have decision desks. They’re not making projections. But this is where I think we may be heading, in a way that’s dangerous. In the Succession world, [the equivalent of] Newsmax is calling the states, the implication being calling states for political reasons, not based on data and science. So, when I say that this is potentially 2024, that’s really interesting.
OK, now you’re scaring me a little.
Think about a world where outlets like Newsmax are calling states for Trump to help him, and that puts pressure on Fox. I think that’s the most interesting thing the writers presented here. Historically, we’ve only got the major networks and the AP, and nobody else gets to try. Historically, we have not had a situation where we’ve had a major outlet seemingly making calls for political gain.
Fox didn’t call the 2020 election for Trump, and they ended up losing a ton of viewers to Newsmax.
And you can see that fear in Tom’s face, when Tom is talking about the other networks making calls.
The major new character in this episode is Darwin, played by Adam Godley, who’s the head of ATN’s decision desk. Did he seem based on someone in particular?
So, the head of the Fox decision desk is a guy named Arnon Mishkin. To me this was clearly a riff on him. If I were Mishkin, I probably would have had a very hard time watching this episode. And for a couple of reasons, one of which is it’s a pretty fantastical, alternate-reality version of events. It’s OK. I’m a producer on The Morning Show—that’s what we do. We come up with crazy scenarios that never happened in real life. But he has been tested before. Meaning, there have been moments where people at the company did not want to believe his prediction. That’s what happens in 2020. Arnon Mishkin appears on Fox multiple times to defend the call and justify the call. But on Succession, I believe [Darwin] asks to go on, and basically Tom says no.
Right: Someone relays Darwin’s request to have five minutes of air time for his “caveats,” and Tom turns him down.
The other thing is, I love when the anchor’s touch screen doesn’t work. On Fox in 2020, there was a moment where the touch screen seemed to be glitching. The actual reason why was because the network’s decision desk had just called Arizona for Biden, but the reporter didn’t know that. That misfire was so emblematic of the miscommunication at Fox that night.
There’s a clip of Fox’s Bill Hemmer at the touch screen, going from thinking it’s malfunctioning to saying, “Why is Arizona blue? Did we just call it?”
I’ve always thought, in real life, that symbolizes Fox’s failure to roll out the news the right way. If you’re going to tell your audience something that it really doesn’t want to hear, you have to do it the right way and not halfheartedly screw it up.
This episode feels like 2016, but it is important to remember we don’t actually know who’s going to be elected president. One character says it might take months to resolve the election. So what’s at stake is not so much who wins but will we believe it when they do, or will ATN be undermining the process the whole time?
Yes, that’s the 2000 part of it. And if a network gets it wrong, what does that do to the process?
And does the network’s or the country’s credibility suffer more?
Arnon Mishkin isn’t a Fox employee, he’s a contractor, but they bring him back every election. There are a lot of reasons to be critical of Fox, but I do think as long as he’s there, the wall will hold.
What do you think of the situation, plausibility-wise, of specifically what happens in Wisconsin? There have been lots of circumstances in the U.S. where ballots have been challenged, but I don’t know of one where 100,000 were simply destroyed.
Our system may be fragile. It did bend. But it doesn’t break. We’ve been so lucky that it hasn’t broken. The show reminds me of what happens in other countries where there’s this complete and utter collapse of trust in the system.
As someone who’s been part of these kinds of broadcasts, were there details that stuck out to you?
The 5 p.m. meeting was very real, where they have the exit polls and tell everyone to keep them secret and no one does. You notice that Tom and Greg are just shooting the shit while they’re being told to keep it secret. And then, in the next frame, the next scene, you see the campaign is hearing about the exit polls. In 2016 at Fox, they went into that 5:15 or 5:30 meeting with Rupert Murdoch, and they believed Hillary was going to be their president based on the exit polls. So, that’s very accurate, and it speaks to our overreliance on polls in general. I also loved how the decision desk character was saying he knows what the result of those missing ballots was going to be. Because he does. “I don’t know, but I do know.” That’s real. People might hate it, and maybe we’ll have an election someday that breaks those predictions, but we’ve yet to have it.
Speaking of predictions, do you have any thoughts on where Succession goes from here?
Well, I can see a scenario where Mencken cuts a better deal with Matsson or just decides that he’s going to let the GoJo acquisition go through to show who’s really in charge now. “You thought I was your puppet, but actually you’re my puppet.” It might be a story where none of the kids live happily ever. It’s actually this out-of-control president that they’ve enabled who calls the shots.