In the weeks after the 2020 election, Fox News faced an existential crisis. The top-rated cable news network had alienated its Donald Trump-loving viewers with an accurate election night prediction for Joe Biden and was facing a terrifying ratings slide, not to mention the ire of a once-loyal president.
Concern came from the very top: “Everything at stake here,” Rupert Murdoch messaged Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott.
The billionaire founder was eager to see the Republican candidate prevail in that fall’s Senate runoff in Georgia – “helping any way we can,” he wrote. But he also advised Scott to keep an eye on the uptick in ratings for a smaller, more conservative channel whose election skepticism suddenly seemed to be resonating with pro-Trump viewers.
Newly released messages show Fox executives fretting that month over an uncomfortable revelation: that if they told their audience the truth about the election, it could destroy their business model.
“Getting creamed by CNN!” Murdoch wrote to Scott on Nov. 8, a day after most news organizations declared that Biden had won. “Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it.”
What Fox’s loyal viewers wanted to watch – and what Fox News was willing to do to keep them – emerged this week as a central question in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought against the network by Dominion Voting Systems.
A stunning cache of internal correspondence and deposition testimony obtained by the software company and made public on Thursday in a Delaware court filing showed high-level Fox executives and on-air stars privately agonizing over the wild and false claims of a stolen election that Trump allies promoted on Fox airwaves in the weeks after the 2020 election. “Sidney Powell is lying,” prime-time star Tucker Carlson wrote to his producer about a Trump lawyer who had appeared on Fox and spewed baseless accusations. “There is NO evidence of fraud,” anchor Bret Baier wrote to one of his bosses.
The plaintiff’s lawyers argue that such messages prove Fox brass knew the claims that Dominion had “flipped” votes from Trump to Biden were untrue – but “spread and endorsed” them anyway.
But the Dominion filing also lends ammunition to their long-held argument: that Fox allowed the false claims to air because it was fearful of losing viewers to Newsmax, an ever more pro-Trump news channel.
“The texts and emails support (Dominion’s) claim that Fox was more concerned about its audience and market share than the truth concerning the 2020 presidential election,” said Timothy Zick, a professor at William & Mary Law School who specializes in the First Amendment and called the breadth of the internal communications “extraordinary.”
In a statement, a Fox spokesperson said: “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.”
Some exchanges showed Fox executives raising an alarm when journalists attempted to counter false claims from the Trump team.
On a Nov. 9 broadcast, news anchor Neil Cavuto cut away from a live briefing by White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, warning viewers that she was making unsubstantiated claims of fraud. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said on air. “Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue to show this.”
Executives took notice: Cavuto’s actions were communicated to senior leadership at parent company Fox Corp. as a “Brand Threat.” Meanwhile, they kept a close eye on ratings.
“The Newsmax surge is a bit troubling – truly is an alternative universe when you watch, but it can’t be ignored,” one message from Fox News President Jay Wallace to his CEO read. “Trying to get everyone to comprehend we are on war footing.”
Later that month, Fox broadcast the entirety of a news conference featuring Powell and fellow Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani outlining their unsubstantiated case for election fraud – a performance that Murdoch dubbed “really crazy stuff,” in an email., “and damaging.”
But when Fox host Dana Perino speculated that such claims could draw a lawsuit from Dominion, Scott expressed concern in an email, saying on-air personalities couldn’t afford to “give the crazies an inch right now … they are looking for and blowing up all appearances of disrespect to the audience.”
In another message, Scott noted, “The audience feels like we crapped on (them) and we have damaged their trust and belief in us. … We can fix this but we cannot smirk at our viewers any longer.”
The ratings concerns turned out to be warranted. In January 2021, for the first time in 20 years, the cable network reported monthly ratings that fell behind both of its main cable news competitors, CNN and MSNBC.
As Trump refused to let up on his election fraud claims, Murdoch suggested that Fox might have the clout to push back. In early January 2021, he relayed in a message to Scott that their three biggest prime-time stars – Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham – “should independently or together say something like ‘the election is over and Joe Biden won.’ ” Murdoch passed on the suggestion that such a move “would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election stolen.”
But such a coordinated announcement never came. In forwarding his email to her staff, Scott added, “we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers.”
Within Fox, the messages show, many worried that the network had been hurt by two key incidents: a debate in which some conservatives believed Fox anchor Chris Wallace lobbed unfair questions to Trump and Fox’s election night prediction that Biden would win the hotly contested state of Arizona.
Hannity wrote to Carlson and Ingraham on Nov. 12 that the combination “destroyed a brand that took 25 years to build and the damage is incalculable.”
“It’s vandalism,” Carlson responded.
In a message to a colleague, Scott complained that Bill Sammon, then the head of the network’s Washington bureau, did not understand “the impact to the brand and the arrogance in calling AZ.” In a separate message, to Fox Corp. executive chair and CEO Lachlan Murdoch, she wrote that: “Viewers going through the 5 stages of grief. It’s a question of trust – the AZ (call) was damaging but we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.”
“Yes,” Murdoch replied. “But needs constant rebuilding without any missteps.”
In another message, Ron Mitchell, the network executive in charge of prime-time programming and analytics, warned that Newsmax’s brand of “conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled (Fox News Channel) viewer is looking for.” As a result, he added, Fox should not “ever give viewers a reason to turn us off. Every topic and guest must perform.”
Mitchell continued: ” ‘No unforced errors’ in content – example: Abruptly turning away from a Trump campaign news conference.”