Fox News has been exposed like never before.
A trove of newly-released text messages and emails have laid bare how the right-wing media giant operated with little regard for fact in the weeks and months following the 2020 presidential election. The correspondence reveals that the network’s senior-most executives and highest-profile hosts chose not to disclose what they believed to be the truth of the election out of fear that that the facts would alienate Fox News’ audience and throw the highly profitable business into ruin.
The messages were contained in a stunning legal filing made public on Thursday as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox News, showing the network’s executives and talk hosts privately trashing lies pushed by former President Donald Trump’s camp and his supporters asserting the 2020 election was rigged.
But, despite privately acknowledging the realiity of the situation, the network allowed the lies to take hold on its air, in large part because executives and hosts were terrified that telling its sizable audience the truth would prompt them to tune out.
After the election, an incensed Trump had attacked Fox News and encouraged his followers to switch to Newsmax, a smaller right-wing talk channel that was saturating its airwaves with election denialism.
Trump was enraged that Fox News was the first network to call the critical swing state of Arizona for now-president Joe Biden. And he couldn’t stand that the network, rightfully, declared Biden as the winner of the presidential contest.
In the days and weeks after the presidential contest had been called, Fox News’ audience listened to Trump and rebelled against the channel. Fox News shed a chunk of its audience while Newsmax gained significant viewership.
Behind the scenes, Fox News executives and hosts were in panic. Jay Wallace, the Fox News president, described Newsmax’s surge as “troubling” and said the network needed to be “on war footing.”
Rupert Murdoch, the Fox Corporation chairman, emailed Suzanne Scott, the Fox News chief executive, telling her that Newsmax needed to be “watched.” Murdoch said that he didn’t “want to antagonize Trump further” and stressed to her, “everything at stake here.”
The messages underscore that Fox News did not live up to the basic journalistic principle that news organizations are supposed to deliver the news to viewers, without fear or favor. Instead, the right-wing talk channel engineered its coverage to appeal to its audience which was actively being lied to by Trump and his campaign surrogates.
“Our viewers are good people and they believe [the election fraud claims],” Tucker Carlson acknowledged in one message to Laura Ingraham.
A week after the election had been called, Sean Hannity told Carlson and Ingraham, “In one week and one debate they destroyed a brand that took 25 years to build and the damage is incalculable.”
“It’s vandalism,” Carlson responded.
Hannity then discussed the damage a competitor could really do to Fox News, describing it as a potentially “serious problem.”
“That could happen,” Carlson replied.
The hosts were so alarmed by Newsmax’s rise, they were enraged when their colleague, White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich, tweeted a mere fact check of Trump’s election lies.
“Please get her fired,” Carlson told Hannity. “Seriously What the f**k? 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.”
Hannity said he had already spoken to Scott about the matter. He then proceeded to criticize two of his other colleagues, Fox News host Neil Cavuto and then-Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, both of whom were critical of Trump.
“I’m 3 strikes,” Hannity said. “Wallace s**t debate[.] Election night a disaster[.] Now this BS? Nope. Not gonna fly. Did I mention Cavuto?”
The fear that Fox News’ audience would abandon it for good also appeared to drive programming decisions. In the days following the election, Alex Pfeiffer, a Carlson producer, told the host, “Many viewers were upset tonight that we didn’t cover election fraud …. It’s all our viewers care about right now.”
Carlson said the decision was a “mistake,” adding, “I just hate this s**t.”
Executives at Fox were so worried about their audience protesting the channel that Scott, the network chief executive, even made an overture to MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a prominent Fox News advertiser and election conspiracy theorist.
When Lindell appeared on Newsmax and criticized Fox News, executives at Fox News “exchanged worried emails about alienating him,” the legal filing said. The filing added that Scott then sent him a handwritten note along with a gift.
In a statement Thursday night, Fox News argued that the court filing contained cherry-picked quotes lacking context.
“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,” the network said.