Fox News once used the slogan "We Report. You Decide." These days, the opposite might be true. Court filings in Dominion Voting Systems' defamation lawsuit against the cable news network reveal that senior Fox figures — people like owner Rupert Murdoch and primetime host Sean Hannity — knew that former Presidet Donald Trump's claims of improprieties in the 2020 election were false. Fox News hosts endorsed them anyway.
Why? The evidence suggests a fear of losing its conservative audience to competitors like Newsmax drove the network's coverage. "Getting creamed by CNN!" Murdoch wrote to a company executive in November 2020, as Fox's approval ratings among Republicans dipped. Fox's audience decided what it wanted to hear, and the network's brightest personalities adjusted accordingly.
Now? "I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight," Murdoch said of Trump's claims, in a deposition quoted in Dominion's filings this week. As for the election itself, he said, "we thought everything was on the up-and-up." But he rejected the idea that Fox News as a whole — and not just individual hosts — promoted the "Big Lie" theory. "No. Not Fox."
The future of Murdoch's empire could well be determined by whether the legal system agrees with him. Dominion is asking for a judgment of $1.6 billion against the network.
'Respecting our audience'
The "stunning" release of texts, emails, and testimony from Fox News figures reveals a "split screen" between what hosts like Hannity and Tucker Carlson were saying behind the scenes and the claims and questions they raised on the air, Politico reports. Behind the scenes, Carlson referred to Trump lawyer Sidney Powell as a "complete nut." But Hannity and Carlson also called for Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich to be fired after she debunked Trump's false claims about Dominion in a tweet. Similarly, then-White House correspondent Kristen Fisher got a talking-to from a Fox executive after she similarly debunked a press conference featuring Powell and Rudy Giuliani. Fisher, the exec said, needed to do a better job "respecting our audience."
"To be clear, by 'respect' they didn't mean 'tell the truth,'" David French writes at The New York Times. Over the years, Fox News became a "cultural cornerstone" for right-wing America, a place "where Red America goes to feel seen and heard." But that means it also morphed into "something more" than a news network with right-leaning inclinations. The result? Fox effectively "placed the audience in charge of its content."
And Fox's audience didn't want to hear that Trump had lost the election. The Associated Press points out that Fox News' fears about losing its audience were real, "judging by Fox's ratings in the election's aftermath." Newsmax — which was more enthusiastic about Trump's claims — even scored a ratings win over Fox in the weeks after President Joe Biden's victory became apparent. Carlson bemoaned the effects on Fox News' stock price, and asked a producer if network execs "understand how much credibility and trust we've lost with our audience" because it had aired skepticism of Trump's falsehoods. So network hosts increasingly played up the bogus claims while muting their skepticism of them. "It's remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things," one network executive reportedly said.
'A watershed of misdeeds'
The Dominion-Fox developments are the biggest story about American media right now — but one that, ironically, Fox News is not covering. Howard Kurtz, the network's media correspondent, said Sunday on-air that viewers have been asking why he's not reported on the revelations. That's a "fair question," he said, but Fox execs have decided that "as part of the organization being sued, I can't talk about it or write about it, at least for now."
But the most important question may be what all the dirty laundry means for the future of Fox now that it's being aired. "News organizations rarely look good when their internal emails and text messages surface in the public square," Erik Wemple writes at The Washington Post. Even by that standard, though, Fox News is coming off badly. The Dominion filings have revealed "a watershed of journalistic misdeeds."
Some observers think Fox News is in hot water. CNN media analyst Sara Fischer — who is allowed to cover the case for her network — says some network executives believe they will lose the case because there "was a discrepancy between what the hosts were saying, what they knew and what was being aired." She adds: "I don't see how any person in their right mind could look at this and say that this is going to be easy for Fox to win."
If Fox News loses the lawsuit, The Guardian's Margaret Sullivan writes that the network's coverage might look very different in the future. Fox might be "forced to become less reckless," she writes. After all, Fox is a business, once answerable not just to its audience but also to shareholders who don't really want to lose a billion dollars. Telling the truth about the 2020 election might have hurt Fox News with its audience, but failing to do so might be even more damaging. And the result? The lawsuit might not put the network out of business, but it's "possibly enough to make coverage more responsible." The defamation trial is scheduled for mid-April.