April 21, 2024

I Never Truly Understood Fox News Until Now

The basic story of Fox News and the 2020 election is well understood. Fox’s relatively small news operation covered the vote count accurately; this coverage infuriated President Donald Trump, the MAGA base, and Fox’s opinion stars; some viewers temporarily flipped to further-right outlets, such as Newsmax; and Fox panicked.

But thanks to Dominion Voting Systems, which is pursuing a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox, we now know that the network’s sense of crisis was even more intense than it appeared from outside. With the case careening toward trial, a court filing yesterday revealed some of what Dominion found during the discovery process, including eye-popping messages from Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Fox’s senior management. “Getting creamed by CNN!” Fox’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, wrote to its top executive after seeing the overnight ratings on November 8. “Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it.”

[Adam Serwer: The right-wing war on free speech could backfire]

He was right. Some of Fox’s top shows began broadcasting a better story, one that its viewers did want to watch: a conspiracy-laden tale about crooked Democrats stealing an election. Dominion is arguing that Fox knew full well that Trumpworld’s voter-fraud allegations were bunk but promoted the lies anyway. Whether or not Dominion prevails in court, and many experts believe it will, the lawsuit is already forcing an ethical reckoning over Fox’s disrespect of its audience. Hour after hour, day after day, Fox stars kept signaling to viewers that Trump might still win the election, not because they thought he would, but because they were worried about their ratings. And we all witnessed the consequences on January 6.

On November 12, 2020, nearly a week after Joe Biden had clinched the presidency, Trump sought refuge in Fox’s alternative reality, and as always, the network delivered.

At the top of the 9 p.m. hour, Trump’s friend Sean Hannity pretended that the outcome was still in doubt. He said the election was not fair. He cited “outstanding votes that have yet to be counted” and “more reports of dead people voting from beyond the grave.” And, importantly, he talked at length about Dominion.

Trump was furious with the small number of journalists at Fox who kept calling Biden the winner of the election, but Hannity was still on his good side. So in typical Trump fashion, he flip-flopped. Twelve hours after tweeting his revulsion with the network, Trump tweeted, “Must see @seanhannity takedown of the horrible, inaccurate and anything but secure Dominion Voting System which is used in States where tens of thousands of votes were stolen from us and given to Biden. Likewise, the Great @LouDobbs has a confirming and powerful piece!”

Now it was nearly 11 p.m. eastern time. The Fox News correspondent Jacqui Heinrich saw Trump’s election-denying post and had the audacity to tweet the truth. She wrote that “top election infrastructure officials”—including some in Trump’s administration—had issued a statement saying “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

Heinrich, a talented young correspondent at Fox, was a minnow, and the prime-time sharks were hungry. The three hosts—Hannity, Carlson, and Laura Ingraham—were in a text chain together, where they had been commiserating about the madness of the postelection period. Carlson flagged Heinrich’s tweet and told Hannity, “Please get her fired.” Why? Because her minor Twitter fact-check of an out-of-control president was exactly the sort of thing that Fox’s fan base could not stand to see.

“It needs to stop immediately, like tonight,” Carlson wrote. “It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Hannity replied and said he had already sent the accurate and thus offending tweet to Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott.

“Sean texted me,” Scott wrote to two colleagues. Apparently Hannity had threatened to tweet back at Heinrich. “He’s standing down on responding,” Scott wrote, “but not happy about this and doesn’t understand how this is allowed to happen from anyone in news.” Scott was bothered too. She worried that reporters at other outlets would notice Heinrich’s tweet: “She has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted.”

Disgusted by what? By a reporter fact-checking Trump’s fictions.

This extreme tension between the newsroom and the much larger opinion operation came up in almost every interview I conducted for Hoax, my book about the disturbing relationship between Fox and Trump. One Wednesday morning in late 2019, I turned on Fox & Friends, pressed the “Mute” button, and dialed up a producer who used to work on the show. It was clear from the tone of his voice that he had profound regrets from his time working on the morning show, and that’s why he wanted to be a confidential source.

The former producer said he sensed himself being brainwashed while consuming all of the right-wing content from the Fox & Friends hosts and guests. He felt himself transforming into one of the millions of Fox addicts across America. “People don’t care if it’s right, they just want their side to win. That’s who this show is for,” he said. “It’s sad.”

It may be sad, but it is also enormously lucrative. Other sources at Fox told me to think of it not as a network per se, but as a profit machine. They feared doing anything that would disrupt the machine. “I feel like Fox is being held hostage by its audience,” a veteran staffer told me, perhaps justifying his own participation by portraying himself as a victim.

When I printed these confessions in Hoax, I wrote that everyone at Fox was “profoundly afraid of losing the audience and the resulting piles of cash.” I cited the former morning-show producer, who told me, “We were deathly afraid of our audience leaving, deathly afraid of pissing them off.”

[David A. Graham: Trump’s future isn’t up to Fox News]

These quotes were evocative, I thought, but they suffered from all the limitations that come with anonymity. And the quotes had not come from Fox’s top tier of millionaire stars and executives. That’s why the new legal filing by Dominion is such a showstopper. We can read exactly what the leaders and stars of Fox News really think. This is my biggest takeaway: In the days after Biden won the election, while Trump tried to start the steal by shouting “Stop the Steal,” the most powerful people at Fox News were not concerned about the health of U.S. democracy. They were concerned about Fox’s brand and their own bottom line.

On November 7, Fox had fallen in line with the other major networks and called the election for Biden. There were spontaneous celebrations in major cities and long faces across Fox’s airwaves. The consensus view both inside and outside the network was that Fox’s acknowledgment of reality—and specifically its early projection that Biden had won Arizona—had turned the audience against the network.

I was working at CNN at the time, so I studied the ratings spreadsheets that arrived in the late afternoon. Newsmax, a tiny Fox wannabe, was suddenly surging by catering to MAGA viewers and refusing to call Biden the president-elect. On November 8, I interviewed Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy and aired clips of election deniers speaking on his network. “Your commentators are promoting bogus voter-fraud lies,” I said. He tried to turn the interview into a sales pitch. “Don’t believe you, don’t believe me, just watch Newsmax,” he said, “and make your own judgment about how fair we are.”

Ruddy, in other words, was capitalizing on the business opportunity before him. He was welcoming viewers to Newsmax with a pledge to tell them what they wanted to hear. Fox’s top talent knew it—and freaked out. According to the Dominion filing, Carlson texted his producer that weekend and said, “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real….an alternative like newsmax could be devastating to us.”

On November 9, Carlson wrote to Scott, “I’ve never seen a reaction like this, to any media company. Kills me to watch it.” Scott shared the message with Rupert’s son Lachlan, the CEO of the Fox Corporation and a Carlson ally. On that day, Dominion alleges, “Fox executives made an explicit decision to push narratives to entice their audience back.” One snippet of texts shows Scott telling Lachlan that viewers were “going through the 5 stages of grief.” Angling to impress her boss, she said the Arizona projection was damaging, “but we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.”

What a curious word—respect. Journalists are taught that to respect the audience means to report the truth clearly and carefully. But inside Fox, which is first and foremost a provider of entertainment, respect meant something else. Reading the texts and emails, I was reminded of another thing the Fox & Friends producer had said. “We were deathly afraid” of the audience, he admitted, “but we also laughed at them. We disrespected them. We weren’t practicing what we preached.”

That’s what Dominion is arguing in the legal realm—that Fox’s leaders were saying one thing privately and another thing publicly.

[Adam Serwer: Fox hosts knew—and lied anyway]

Lachlan Murdoch affirmed Scott’s plan to “respect” the audience and said that the network’s relationship with its viewers “needs constant rebuilding without any missteps.” Soon messages were going back and forth about threats to the “brand.” Accurate reporting by Fox journalists, such as Heinrich’s tweet, was one of those perceived threats. Carlson texted his fellow hosts that he “went crazy on Meade over it,” meaning that he had lashed out at Meade Cooper, Fox’s executive vice president of prime-time programming, who reported to Scott. By the next morning, Heinrich’s tweet was gone, as Dominion’s filing notes.

The Trump tweet Heinrich referenced included both Hannity and Dobbs by name, so by fact-checking it, she had technically run afoul of a company policy against intramural warfare, I learned through my reporting. “No shooting in the tent,” the former Fox executive Roger Ailes used to say, although the policy was unevenly enforced. So Heinrich took down her first tweet, but quickly posted a new one on November 13, also fact-checking Trump and noting a complete dearth of evidence for the anti-Dominion conspiracy theories that were airing all across right-wing TV.

Hannity’s election-doubting monologue, meanwhile, remained online. Fox’s website bills it as “a deep dive into the voting machines at center of controversy.” And Carlson was right about the stock price that November day—Fox Corporation dropped 2.6 percent. While the rest of us were worrying about how Trump’s antidemocratic conduct was going to undermine our democracy, he was worried about his bank account.

The other crucial metric Fox leaders were watching, of course, was the Nielsen ratings chart. The Dominion filing contains snippets of conversations from later in November that showcase Hannity’s alarm. “The network is being rejected,” he texted Carlson and Ingraham, to which Carlson responded, “I’ve heard from angry viewers every hour of the day all weekend, including at dinner tonight.” So they each found ways to wink and nod to voting irregularities and unfair systems—showing “respect” to viewers by actively misinforming them.

In a separate thread, on November 24, one of Hannity’s producers cited minute-by-minute ratings from the prior week’s episodes and said, “Our best minutes from last week were on the voting irregularities.” The conspiracy-laden segments continued on Fox through December, the ratings improved, and the country’s political divide deepened.

Not long after the election and the insurrection, I went back to sources at Fox to hear about the aftermath, gathering mere scraps in comparison to Dominion’s discovery-aided buffet. Sources told me that the pressure from the audience was debilitating in the postelection period. A senior staffer at Fox railed against the network’s journalists and math wizards who had called Arizona for Biden, calling them “arrogant fucks” who “are rubbing it in our viewers’ faces.”

Rubbing what? “Biden. They’re rubbing Biden in our faces.”

I never fully understood that objection until I read the new Dominion filing. Somewhere around page 157, it clicked. Inside Fox, the prime-time stars and senior executives raged against the network’s reporters not because they doubted that Biden had won, but because the truth was too disturbing to the audience that had made them rich. Fox’s postelection strategy, the texts and emails suggest, was to stop rubbing Biden in its viewers’ faces. But in their effort to show their viewers “respect,” they ultimately disrespected both their audience and the American experiment they claim to protect.

𝖂𝖆𝖘𝖍𝖎𝖓𝖌𝖙𝖔𝖓 𝕽𝖊𝖆𝖉

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