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One Call Too Many?

A Fox News consultant involved in making judgments about presidential "calls" on Election Night admits he was in touch with George W. Bush and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush by telephone several times during the evening, but denies having broken any rules.

Fox is considering disciplinary action against the consultant, John Ellis, who is a cousin to Bush and a former Boston Globe columnist who stopped writing about the campaign for the paper, citing family "loyalty" to Bush.

On Election Night, Ellis headed a four-person team that analyzed Voter News Service (VNS) exit poll data for the network and made judgments about which candidate would win each state when all the votes had been counted. The decision to broadcast those projections was made by a Fox executive.

At 2:16 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Fox became the first network to call Florida for Bush. Minutes later, CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN made the same call.

VNS is an exit polling service created by the networks and the Associated Press to provide data to subscriber news organizations on Election Day.

Before votes are counted and made public, journalists use VNS to see how the vote is going among people who participated in the polling. The data, which updates continuously on Election Night, can also be used to divine trends, such as how Americans of a given gender, age bracket, income or religion are voting.

The contract between VNS and its subscribers prohibits news organizations from broadcasting/publishing or sharing a state's election results with non-subscribers, until a "large majority" of polls have closed in that state.

The New Yorker magazine reported that Ellis "relay[ed] early vote counts [to Austin] as they showed up on his screens." Ellis admits to having been in touch with George W. and Jeb Bush several times during the evening, but denies having violated VNS rules and Fox policy.

Whether Ellis violated the letter of the VNS contract or not, it’s fat on the fire of the controversy engulfing the Florida vote, which already includes an examination of conscience at network news organizations over their role in the confusion about the outcome of the vote there.

Ellis provided with a copy of a letter he says he sent to the editor of the New Yorker. In the letter, Ellis says that he “did not share with [Governor Bush] any of the information that was appearing on our screens" during two afternoon phone calls.

The letter says that later in the evening "as actual vote results" came in, Ellis spoke frequently with the Bushes about "what was happening” in several states. According to Ellis, other workers on the decision desk – “most of whom are registered Democrats” – were talking to the Gore campaign.

Ellis says that he was ultra-scrupulous because of his relationship. "We obeyed those [rules] more strictly than any oter news organization, precisely because my cousin was running for president," Ellis told USA Today.

Fox spokesman Robert Zimmerman would not say who is involved in the in-house discussion of what to do about the Ellis phone calls.

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