Who really runs Fox News?
Some liberals have a mental model in which the network lies to and misleads its audience, propagandizing them to support Republicans and the right. But an ongoing defamation lawsuit from the voting machine company Dominion against Fox News tells a more complex story — one in which the network’s key players feel compelled to supply the conspiratorial content the audience is demanding.
A new filing by Dominion’s attorneys released Thursday cited a trove of Fox emails and texts they had obtained in the discovery phase of the lawsuit, as well as testimony from top executives and hosts, to lay out a narrative about what happened in the tense weeks after Election Day 2020, when then-President Donald Trump was spreading lies about the election.
As they discussed coverage of Trump’s falsehoods, Fox’s top executives and primetime personalities were explicitly terrified of alienating pro-Trump viewers, panicked about losing the “trust” of the audience, and anxious about competition from the further right and more conspiratorial Newsmax.
Almost everyone at the network, it seems, understood Trump’s allegations about a stolen election, and particularly his attorney Sidney Powell’s wacky tales of malfeasance from Dominion, were nonsense.
But an intense culture of what one might call “political correctness” took hold — in which challenging Trump and Powell’s claims could only happen with the utmost care and sensitivity, for fear of offending the tender feelings of Fox viewers.
More broadly, in understanding how lies and conspiracies spread on the right, it’s important to reckon not just with the suppliers of this coverage, but also the demand. There’s an intense desire for it among viewers that organizations like Fox calculate they have to satisfy in some way. And if Fox doesn’t provide it, those audiences will just seek it out elsewhere.
The terror of losing audience trust — and competition from Newsmax
The way Dominion’s attorneys tell the story, the problem really started when, late on election night, Fox News’s decision desk called the state of Arizona for Joe Biden — and no other networks joined them.
The Fox call was consequential, seriously undercutting Trump’s hope of portraying the election outcome as genuinely in question. It also was, probably, premature. The consensus among other decision desks and election wonks was that Fox called the state too quickly, considering how much of the vote remained uncounted and where and whom those uncounted votes were coming from. Other outlets left Arizona uncalled for more than a week as counting continued, and Biden’s lead shrank there. Biden eventually won the state by a mere 0.3 percent margin.
But the Fox personalities’ real concern was not so much with the facts or technical details of election wonkery as with the optics. In getting out on a limb and calling Arizona for Biden when no one else was doing so, it appeared to Fox’s pro-Trump viewers like the network was shivving Trump.
“We worked really hard to build what we have. Those fuckers [at the decision desk] are destroying our credibility. It enrages me,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson wrote to his producer on November 5. He went on to say that what Trump is good at is “destroying things,” adding, “He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”
On November 7, Carlson again wrote to his producer when Fox called Biden as the winner nationally (this time, alongside the other major networks). “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real,” he wrote.
The fear of alienating the audience was particularly acute because another conservative cable network with a more conspiratorial bent, Newsmax, was covering Trump’s stolen election claims far more uncritically. “An alternative like newsmax could be devastating to us,” Carlson continued.
Fox News anchor Dana Perino wrote to a Republican strategist about “this RAGING issue about fox losing tons of viewers and many watching — get this — newsmax! Our viewers are so mad about the election calls...” And Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott told another executive that the political team did not understand “the impact to the brand and the arrogance in calling AZ.”
Fox Corporation chair Rupert Murdoch later emailed Scott that Newsmax “should be watched, if skeptically ... We don’t want to antagonize Trump further, but [Rudy] Giuliani [should be] taken with a large grain of salt.” He added, ominously, “Everything at stake here.”
Scott also exchanged texts with Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert’s son and the Fox Corporation’s CEO:
Scott: “It’s a question of trust — the AZ [call] was damaging but we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them”
Murdoch: “Yes. But needs constant rebuilding without any missteps”
Scott: “Yes today is day one and it’s a process.”
So as Trump pressed forward with his stolen election lies and his attempt to overturn Biden’s win, Fox made it an immensely important, existential priority to regain the trust of pro-Trump viewers. Fox News president and editor Jay Wallace wrote to Scott that he was “trying to get everyone to comprehend we are on war footing.”
When some at Fox then deigned to fact-check Trump and his allies’ false claims, top talent and executives deemed this “disrespect”
As Trump continued to dispute the election results, and as he and allies like Powell and Giuliani spread false and increasingly bizarre claims about election fraud, a pattern unfolded.
First, a Fox anchor or reporter would attempt to fact-check these claims and find them wanting. Then, they’d quickly face furious blowback from executives or the primetime hosts, who viewed these attempts to stay grounded in factual reality as a threat to the “brand” and a sign of “disrespect” to their viewers.
Dominion’s filing lists several examples of this:
Jacqui Heinrich: On November 12, Trump tweeted that coverage from two Fox hosts, Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, confirmed his claims about votes being “stolen.” Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich tweeted in response that this was “not what top election infrastructure officials said,” citing their claims that there was no evidence any votes were changed or compromised.
Carlson sent Heinrich’s tweet to fellow primetime hosts Hannity and Laura Ingraham, writing: “Please get her fired. Seriously... what the fuck? I’m actually shocked... It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
Carlson and Hannity both complained to top executives, and Scott, the company CEO, later wrote: “She [Heinrich] has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted.” Heinrich then deleted the tweet.
Some of the outrage here may have been because Trump had praised claims from Fox opinion hosts, and Heinrich appeared to be rebutting them. But the concerns were also framed around how viewers would respond and how the company would be hurt.
Neil Cavuto: On November 9, Cavuto, an anchor, cut away from a White House press conference, saying press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was making an “explosive charge” of election fraud, but that “unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue to show you this.”
The “brand team,” led by top executives at Fox News’s parent company, the Fox Corporation, took notice, warning top corporate leadership that Cavuto’s comments posed a “Brand Threat.” Hannity also complained about Cavuto in a text to Carlson and Ingraham.
Dana Perino and Kristin Fisher: On November 19, after Fox aired a press conference where Giuliani and Powell made wild allegations about Dominion, anchor Dana Perino observed on-air that the voting company might sue Powell, and White House correspondent Kristin Fisher tried to fact-check the claims, calling many of them “simply not true.”
Fox News's @KristinFisher responds to @RudyGiuliani's voter fraud press conference:— Washington Examiner (@dcexaminer) November 19, 2020
"That was certainly a colorful news conference from Rudy Giuliani, but it was light on facts.
So much of what he said was simply not true or has already been thrown out in court." pic.twitter.com/Lp33n4QJu5
After that, per testimony, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott was “screaming about Dana’s show and their reaction to the Rudy presser.” Scott wrote in an email that the “crazies” were “looking for and blowing up all appearances of disrespect to the audience,” and separately wrote, “We can fix this but we cannot smirk at our viewers any longer.”
Fisher, meanwhile, testified that her boss told her “higher-ups at Fox News were unhappy” with her fact-checking, saying that she “needed to do a better job of ... — this is a quote — ‘respecting our audience.’” She complained in texts that she was being “punished for doing my job.”
Tucker Carlson’s game
The full filing tells an interesting story about Carlson, who appeared to be playing a complicated game: reassuring the Fox audience that the network was still on Trump’s side, while trying to walk back the most unhinged and wild fraud claims.
Carlson was irate over the call of Arizona for Biden, furious over Heinrich’s fact-check of Trump, and very worried about losing viewers’ trust. But he also became increasingly concerned about indulging voter fraud conspiracy theories, which he knew full well were nonsensical.
After Powell appeared on his colleague Maria Bartiromo’s show on November 8 and made false claims of Dominion using voting machine software to switch votes, Carlson privately texted, “The software shit is absurd... Half our viewers have seen the Maria clip.”
Then, on November 10, a producer told Carlson that many “viewers were upset tonight that we didn’t cover election fraud,” which is “all our viewers care about right now.” Carlson responded that it was indeed a “mistake” not to cover it, and added, “I just hate this shit.”
Carlson’s producer Justin Wells texted a fellow producer: “We’re threading a needle that has to be thread because of the dumb fucks at Fox on Election Day. We can’t make people think we’ve turned against Trump. Yet also call out the bullshit. You and I see through it. But we have to reassure some in the audience.”
Meanwhile, Carlson became increasingly frustrated with Powell. Per the filing, he privately told her on November 17: “You keep telling our viewers that millions of votes were changed by the software. I hope you will prove that very soon. You’ve convinced them that Trump will win. If you don’t have conclusive evidence of fraud at that scale, it’s a cruel and reckless thing to keep saying.” He also texted Ingraham the next day that Powell was “lying” and that he’d “caught her.”
On November 19, then, Carlson decided to take Powell’s claims on air, in a monologue that tried to be respectful to Trump voters’ suspicions, criticized the mainstream media, and stressed that he really tried to take Powell’s accusations seriously — but that she simply has no evidence:
But she never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of polite requests. When we kept pressing, she got angry and told us to stop contacting her. When we checked with others around the Trump campaign, people in positions of authority, they also told us Powell had never given them any evidence to prove anything she claimed at the press conference.
Powell did say that electronic voting is dangerous, and she’s right, but she never demonstrated that a single actual vote was moved illegitimately by software from one candidate to another. Not one.
There was, again, viewer backlash and discussion at the top levels of Fox’s corporate hierarchy — but the details of this discussion are redacted in the legal filing. A top Fox Corporate executive, Raj Shah, did text a Carlson producer some support: “shit is so crazy right now. so many people openly denying the obvious that Powell is clearly full of it.”
Finally, on November 22, Trump distanced himself from Powell’s claims and said she did not represent his campaign. Carlson seemed to claim credit for this, texting Ingraham: “It totally wrecked my weekend. Wow... I had to try to make the WH disavow her, which they obviously should have done long before.” He also texted his producer, Wells: “We won the battle with Powell. Thank god.”
How Fox’s influence really works
All this reminded me of what happened when Fox initially tried to take down presidential candidate Donald Trump in the summer of 2015. Fox’s debate hosts tore into Trump with hard-hitting questions, but viewers who loved Trump expressed their outrage, and the network adjusted to take a less anti-Trump line, eventually outright championing him.
The idea that Fox tells its viewers what to think about everything, and, like lemmings, they blindly go along with it is simply wrong. Like any media organization reliant on an audience, it is in some ways captive to its viewers. It is trying to serve them — and it does so by putting out coverage they think its viewers will like and find entertaining. But when the audience they’re seeking — hardcore pro-Trump conservatives — becomes disconnected from reality, as they did with regard to the 2020 election outcome, that’s a problem.
Yet Fox does still want to influence its audience in more subtle ways. It attempts to steer, redirect, and shape their rage without ever taking too heavy a hand, and certainly without making them angry enough that they might stop watching.
This seems to be the theory behind Carlson’s intervention to get Powell pushed out of the Trump team. He was intensely careful to communicate to Fox viewers that he was on their side — really — and that he wasn’t one of the liberal elites mocking them and rolling his eyes at them. (Though in private, he really was mocking and rolling his eyes at Powell.)
Or take Fox’s coverage of Gov. Ron DeSantis, which has been so positive and frequent that it has helped push the Florida governor rather close to Trump in national polls of the 2024 presidential race, though DeSantis isn’t even running yet. Fox can’t take down Trump because its viewers simply wouldn’t accept such a blunt intervention. But it can build up a Trump alternative, portraying him in a way their viewers would eat up (as the culture war champion battling woke liberals). It’s a more subtle form of influence, but it is a real one.
Still, the Dominion suit overall shows the limits of Fox’s powers. Viewers aren’t locked in with Fox — Fox is locked in with them.