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How Fox News created its own crisis with Trump’s 2020 lies

Lawsuit filings show how Fox News employees saw themselves as victims of Trump.
Fox News election night coverage is displayed on a monitor during a party in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 4, 2020.
Fox News election night coverage is displayed on a monitor during a party in the East Room of the White House on Nov. 4, 2020.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

A detailed timeline of Fox News employees’ text message and email correspondence in the aftermath of the 2020 election recently published by The New York Times provides a closer look at how the company wrestled over whether or not to side with former President Donald Trump’s election lies. The messages, pulled from court filings from Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against Fox News, illustrate how Fox News executives, producers and hosts panicked about losing viewers to right-wing competitor NewsMax — and then embraced information they didn’t trust or believe to pull out of a ratings tailspin.

In addition to cynical opportunism, there is self-delusion. One striking theme in the messages is that some of the Fox News employees appear to see themselves as victims of Trump’s misbehavior; they think their hand is being forced by his hold over Republican viewers. What they fail to see, at least in their correspondence, is how they were the authors of their own predicament. Fox News helped make Trump and give life to his whole brand of politics. Their ratings problem wasn’t because Trump went too far, but because their business model relied on never drawing a line when it comes to generating fear on the right. 

Fox News built its editorial vision around appealing to the American right’s base instincts.

The messages underscore the internal rationalization process Fox News used to justify chasing ratings. Fox News built its editorial vision around appealing to the American right’s base instincts. If it were an even somewhat honest media operation, it should’ve faced no dilemma when ratings dropped — because huge, dangerous lies about democratic institutions should be a clear red line for even the most partisan and sensationalistic media outlets. But that’s not the business Fox News is in.

In the messages documented in the Times’ report, it’s clear that many Fox News employees were initially reluctant to serve as a megaphone for Trump’s disinformation about the 2020 elections. But when it came to thinking through the origins of their problem, they were strikingly myopic. Consider this post-election exchange in November 2020 between three producers for Fox News host Sean Hannity:

Robert Samuel: dont know how closely you’ve looked at our charts this week but audience much more interested in voter irregularities than covid hypocrisy and race/obama’s book tour, at least for our show

Samuel: Trump and his team have put us in an awful spot

Ron Mitchell: Totally agree. They turned it into an instant circus.

Tiffany Fazio: This is just not good

The producers blame “Trump and his team” for putting Fox News into a predicament, and criticize Trump for turning election discussion into “an instant circus.” What’s missing is a reckoning with the reality that this is not an “instant circus” that just sprung up overnight, but was a completely foreseeable storyline given how Trump broadcast conspiracy theories about a rigged election before the election. Trump also lied about winning the popular vote in the 2016 election. This wasn’t a surprise.   

In another exchange, Fox News host Tucker Carlson and his producer complain about feeling obligated to cover fraud claims that they don’t buy:

Alex Pfeiffer: You told me to tell you if we are getting attacked on Twitter so I will. Many viewers were upset tonight that we didn’t cover election fraud.

Tucker Carlson: Yeah. Probably should have.

Pfeiffer: Yeah I didn’t get why we didnt. Assumed it was some sort of decision not to.

Pfeiffer: But it’s all our viewers care about now

Carlson: Mistake.

Carlson: I just hate that shit.

Pfeiffer: Its like birtherism 2.0. A grassroots movement the GOP leadership thinks they can control and go away but this wont.

In this exchange there’s resentment of viewer opinion, and criticism of the Republican Party for deciding to play with fire by embracing lies. (In other texts from Dominion filings that I’ve written about in the past, Carlson confessed to colleagues that he hated Trump and considered him a “destroyer.”) But curiously, Fox News itself seems to have no role in all this. 

All cable news networks — and to some extent, all for-profit media enterprises — care a ton about ratings, and have to make decisions about balancing different kinds of coverage that may engage more viewers. But this bid for engagement is typically circumscribed by a commitment to tell the truth, or at least to shun particularly flagrant or consequential falsehoods. The fact that Fox News felt a sense of obligation to knowingly embrace hugely consequential lies about our political system underscores the radicalism of their operation. And it also highlights how much they created their own dilemma.  

Fox News’ alarmist, nationalist culture-war politics were a forerunner of Trumpism; not a result of it. Fox News — a network that has a significant effect on Republican voter share — operated as a powerful booster for Trump by granting him friendly interviews and favorable coverage long before he attempted to deny the 2020 election results. Fox News both inspired and turbocharged Trump’s nationalist policy agenda on issues like immigration, crime and demonization of political opponents in a symbiotic feedback cycle. Crucially, Fox News declined over the course of Trump’s presidency to object to his serial mendacity.

Given that Fox News was so eager to help lock arms with a cult figure who was remorseless about constantly lying and disregarding the rule of law, it is strange to see its employees lament its predicament as if it couldn’t have been predicted. Trump didn’t put Fox News in an awful spot — Fox News did, by diving aggressively into becoming Trump’s most influential propaganda apparatus. At this point, there's no reason to trust that Fox News is capable of imposing any limits on itself at all.