In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, as Donald Trump and too many of his allies began lying to the public about the results, Republicans directed a fair amount of attention at Dominion Voting Systems. Not surprisingly, the GOP’s conspiracy theories about the company and its voting equipment did not fare well under scrutiny.
But for Dominion, this was more than just an annoyance. In fact, the company decided to file defamation lawsuits, including one against Fox News, the results of which are starting to create a nightmare for the network. NBC News reported overnight on a newly unsealed court filing that appears to show that Fox News deliberately promoted bogus election claims they knew to be false.
The document, which pulls from a host of internal communications from Fox News employees involved in election coverage, includes comments and quotes revealing that producers, executives and stars of the network knew that the election wasn’t stolen and that many fraud claims were bogus. The communications suggest that Fox News zeroed in on fraud claims as a way to boost ratings and appease their conservative viewership, who some at the company believed abandoned them after President Joe Biden won in Arizona.
I want to briefly pause at this point to note that when it comes to Fox News and its work, I generally find it difficult to be surprised. I’ve kept an eye on the network and its role in Republican politics for many years, and as a result, I’ve arrived at certain assumptions about what to expect from the outlet. There’s no great mystery as to what Fox News is, what it does, and the role it plays in the larger political ecosystem, so I’m not easily astonished by controversies surrounding the network.
Having said that, I might be jaded, but I nevertheless find these new disclosures stunning.
In fact, though it’s difficult to even know where to start, I’ve found myself dwelling on what happened to a Fox reporter named Jacqui Heinrich, who published a tweet the week after Election Day fact-checking a message from Donald Trump, who was relying at the time on what he’d seen on Fox. What Heinrich wrote was true: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” she explained on Nov. 12, 2020.
Tucker Carlson soon after sent a text to Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. “Please get her fired,” Carlson wrote, referring to the reporter who presented accurate information. The host added, “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
Related text messages showed the same prime-time hosts expressing outrage that their employer had called Arizona for the Democratic ticket, not because the call was wrong — the Democratic ticket really did win Arizona — but because the call led some of Fox’s core audience to turn to other media outlets aligned with the right.
And so, according to Dominion’s court filing and the internal communications it featured, Fox programming promoted ridiculous claims and promoted ridiculous voices in order to appease Republican voters — and keep them watching.
At one point, a Fox executive pointed to a fringe website promoting bizarre nonsense. “This type of conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled [Fox News] viewer is looking for,” the executive wrote.
A day later, reporter Kristin Fisher told viewers, referring to a Rudy Giuliani/Sidney Powell press conference, “So much of what he said was simply not true or has already been thrown out in court.”
The reporter soon after received a call from her superior, who told her that Fox executives were “unhappy” with her accurate description of reality, and she needed to do a better job of “respecting our audience.”
In this context, “respecting” Fox viewers apparently meant telling them what they wanted to hear — as opposed to telling them what Fox knew to be true.
A New York Times report noted, "The messages also show that ... doubts extended to the highest levels of the Fox Corporation, with Rupert Murdoch, its chairman, calling Mr. Trump’s voter fraud claims 'really crazy stuff.'"
That was not, however, what the network's viewers were told.
A Washington Post analysis added, “[T]he entire, still-emerging picture of Fox is one of an organization that was scared to tell its viewers the full truth and instead internalized what it saw as the business value of airing false and baseless claims from noncredible actors (whether its own staff explicitly endorsed them or not).”
My MSNBC colleague Jordan Rubin can speak with more authority about the legal significance of Dominion’s filing and the larger case, and his latest report is well worth your time. But as a political matter, these new allegations are arguably the most serious controversy related to the network’s credibility Fox has ever faced.
The Post’s Erik Wemple described the revelations as “the most piercing look at the internal goings-on at Fox News in its quarter-century history.”
For its part, Fox New said in a statement, “There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners, but the core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v. Sullivan.”
Fox’s lawyers, NBC News’ report added, “have included debunked election fraud claims in their defense.”