At Fox, the Bottom Line depended on the Big Lie
'Succession' writers could not have made this up.
In 2010, the conservative commentator David Frum said, "Republicans originally thought Fox worked for us. Then we discovered that we work for Fox." A new legal document released on February 16 in the $1.6 billion Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit reveals what Fox was working for: their bottom line.
A 192-page legal filing by Dominion's lawyers shows Fox News primetime hosts privately ridiculing President Donald Trump's baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen, while the network continued to promote election lies on air. If some of the things in the document were said on HBO's "Succession," people would think that the show's writers were stretching credulity. Dominion argues that Fox defamed their business by knowingly airing false information about its software; Fox is arguing that it was merely covering the allegations as any news organization would.
Fox News was worried about losing ratings. Executives and hosts fretted over losing their audience to far-right cable channel Newsmax (also being sued by Dominion), which President Trump promoted. Fox's accurate early call of Arizona for Joe Biden freaked out hosts. Tucker Carlson texted his producer, "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." Three days later, Fox News President Jay Wallace texted to CEO Suzanne Scott about ratings: "The Newsmax surge is a bit troubling [.] Truly is an alternative universe when you watch, but it can't be ignored." She agreed.
Initially, some Fox News hosts were reluctant to air the Big Lie, but executives and hosts worried that fact-checks would cause them to lose their audience. On November 9, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany made claims of election fraud at a press briefing. Host Neil Cavuto interjected and cut away from the briefing: "Whoa, whoa, whoa she's charging the other side as welcoming fraud and illegal voting, unless she has more details to back that up, I can't in good countenance continue to show you this." The document states that the "brand team led by Raj Shah at Fox Corporation notified senior Fox News and Fox Corporation leadership of the Brand Threat posed by Cavuto's action."
Further, after Fox's White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich tweeted a fact-check of a Trump tweet pushing election fraud, Carlson texted Sean Hannity that he wanted her fired: "Please get her fired. Seriously What the f***?...It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It's measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke." (Heinrich deleted her tweet but still covers the White House for Fox.)
Others at the network went all in on election lies, but still knew they had no proof of what they were saying. On November 12, host Lou Dobbs invited Rudolph Giuliani on his show, spewing baseless claims of election fraud. Dobbs responded: "It's stunning they have no ability to audit meaningfully the votes that are cast because the servers are somewhere else. [It] looks to me like it is the end of what has been…a four-and-a-half year-long effort to overthrow the president of the United States." A day later, and after another segment airing baseless claims with Trump attorney Sidney Powell, Trump praised Dobbs as airing a "confirming and powerful piece.” According to the document, as part of the investigation, Dobbs has admitted that he never had "seen any verifiable, tangible support" for the claims broadcast on his show with Powell.
Many of the hosts knew the lies were lies ("Sidney Powell is lying," Carlson texted his producer on November 16) but were too greedy to say that publicly and risk losing their audience, and therefore, revenue and advertisers. When push came to shove, the network shamelessly chose ratings, while completely discarding journalistic ethics as a news organization. Perhaps to fend off a defense that the host's shows should be taken as opinion and not news, Dominion's lawyers provided several statements of the hosts calling their shows "credible," "accurate," and in the domain of news.
The Dominion suit is currently ongoing; it remains a financial threat to Fox News and its business model of courting a right-wing audience. The discovery may help Dominion in proving the standard for defamation: "actual malice," defined as having "reckless disregard" for the truth or falsity of the information.
Over two years later, Fox is still sowing doubt about the 2020 election, but using innuendo rather than possibly defamatory statements. On his February 16 show, Carlson said of the 2020 election: "There are so many unanswered questions…How, for example, did senile hermit Joe Biden get 15 million more votes than his former boss, rockstar crowdsurfer Obama? Results like that would seem to defy the laws of known physics and qualify instead as a miracle." He continued, "Was the 2020 election a miracle? Honestly we don't know and don't expect to get an answer to it tonight." Carlson's math is a bit off -- Biden got 12.8 million more votes than Obama in 2008 -- but the reason for more votes is simple and easily found on Google: population growth and increased turnout. Thanks to the legal filings, though, we know what he really thought about the 2020 election.
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