A brief filed by election technology company Dominion Voting Systems as part of its $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News and released on Thursday provides the clearest picture ever of the right-wing network’s operations — and the portrait that emerges is not flattering.
Wielding internal emails and text messages obtained through discovery, as well as numerous depositions with Fox’s on-air talent and brass, Dominion’s lawyers reveal that the network was feeding viewers information about fraud in the 2020 election that its executives, hosts and producers knew to be false. Out of fear that Fox News’s audience was leaving for its competitors, the brief alleges, the network chose to buttress President Donald Trump’s lie that the election had been stolen from him, helping to set the stage for the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Perhaps the brief’s most revealing piece of evidence comes in a text message between prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. In the Nov. 18, 2020, conversation, the Fox stars shared their contempt for Trump’s conspiracy-minded lawyers, Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani. Carlson told Ingraham that he personally found their lies “unbelievably offensive,” but added: “Our viewers are good people and they believe it.” (The network, in a statement to NBC News, suggested that the filing was “a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners” that distracts from the First Amendment issues at play.)
When I tell people that I’ve spent 15 years studying Fox News and the right-wing outlets in its orbit, the question I get most frequently is, “Do they really believe what they are saying?” In other words, are Fox’s biggest stars actually bigoted conspiracy theorists, or are they playing a role for the cameras that fulfills their viewers’ expectations? My typical answer is that it is impossible to say for sure and that different hosts may fall more into one category than the other, but that ultimately what matters is what they say, not what they truly think.
But Carlson’s text message is the key to understanding Fox News’ programming. It establishes definitively that at least in some cases, Fox hosts are knowingly deceiving their viewers because they think that is what the viewers want.
Other panicked messages in the brief include executives chastising “news side” staff for not “respecting our audience” by debunking false election fraud claims and instructing them not to “smirk at our viewers” in that way because they might switch to a Trumpier alternative. Meanwhile, the prime-time hosts — led by Sean Hannity — discussed trying to get a colleague fired for fact-checking a false Trump tweet about Dominion changing the vote totals. As Carlson put it, such content was “measurably hurting the company.”
Together, these messages reveal a network operating by a simple mantra: The audience giveth and the audience taketh; blessed be the audience. Carlson’s messages show that he thought Powell’s claims about election fraud were “absurd” and “insane.” But while he noted on-air that Powell had not produced evidence for her most explosive claims about Dominion’s role in stealing the 2020 election, as Dominion’s brief points out, “he did not say what he believed privately — that she was ‘lying.’” That might offend viewers who believed what she was telling them, and so it went unsaid.
Fox News’ role, according to its own talent, is thus not to challenge or inform its audience, but rather to confirm what its right-wing viewers already believe. In short, Fox is a propaganda outlet, not a news outlet.
In this case, Fox’s viewers “are good people and they believe” the 2020 election was stolen, and so Fox confirms that belief. On Thursday night, just hours after the brief’s release, Carlson was still insinuating that the election was fraudulent, telling his viewers: “There are so many unanswered questions, some of them lingering. How, for example, did Biden get 15 million more votes than his former boss Obama? Was the 2020 election a miracle? Honestly we don’t know and don’t expect an answer tonight.”
The network’s handling of numerous other stories reflects the same logic: Fox hosts at the least give succor to right-wing conspiracy theories, at most adopt them in full — but rarely if ever disrespect the audience by debunking them.
Fox’s viewers are good people and they believe that Bill Gates has placed microchips in the COVID-19 vaccine, and Fox’s stars are there to tell them they are right to think the vaccines are dangerous and unnecessary. Fox’s viewers are good people and they believe that Paul Pelosi was assaulted by his gay lover, and Fox’s stars are there to tell them they are right to question the official story. Fox’s viewers are good people and they believe that Trump is about to smash a global cabal of Democrats and celebrities that is sexually abusing children, and Fox’s stars are there to tell them that there’s nothing wrong with being a QAnon adherent, whatever that is.
For years, Fox Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch and his son and would-be heir, Lachlan, have steadfastly supported Fox’s right-wing talent and handsomely profited from their dives into the fever swamps. Indeed, the brief reveals that the elder Murdoch was fully aware that the claims of a rigged election his network was airing were “crazy stuff” — and that document was filed before his own deposition in the case.
But with its 2020 election fraud lies, Fox News may have finally gone too far. It is very difficult to win a defamation case against a media outlet in this country — rightfully so given the importance of the First Amendment. But Dominion’s lawsuit makes a strong case based on internal documents that it says show “literally dozens of people with editorial responsibility — from the top of the organization to the producers of specific shows to the hosts themselves — acted with actual malice” — the legal standard required in defamation cases. And earlier in the week, a court ruled against Fox News’ bid to quash a separate $2.7 billion lawsuit filed by the election technology company Smartmatic, which the network similarly maligned.
Fox News may finally be on the verge of facing real consequences for lying to its viewers. That day of reckoning can’t come soon enough.