What the Dominion lawsuit reveals about the future of Fox News

February 21, 2023
The Fox News newsroom. Courtesy photo.

By most appearances, Fox News is a well-managed, tightly run outfit. It’s America’s most popular cable news channel, thrashing CNN and MSNBC with a prime-time audience of more than two million. It’s highly profitable, as its parent Fox Corp. reported more than $1 billion in net income last fiscal year.

But a very different picture emerges in the wake of the internal emails and texts that became public last week, as part of a defamation suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems over Fox’s airing of conspiracy theories about its machines. In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, Fox was not so much a finely tuned business as a Fortune 500 clown car. And the suit has exposed divisions that will plague Fox in the next election cycle, particularly if Donald Trump wins the Republican nomination.

Ostensibly, the network is run by Suzanne Scott, who as chief executive of Fox News Media is the successor to Roger Ailes, and executive editor Jay Wallace. They report to Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan, the chair and chief executive of Fox Corp., respectively.

In fact, Dominion’s filing shows that insofar as anyone was overseeing post-2020 election coverage at Fox, it was right-wing personalities like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Maria Bartiromo. While those anchors showcased absurd election theories—“really crazy stuff,” as Rupert called it—their bosses were complaining about the flood of lies but, according to the messages, were unable or unwilling to stop it.

Much of the evidence for Fox’s post-election dysfunction comes from Dominion’s filing in its lawsuit over allegations that the lies about fraud severely damaged its business. The document, filed in Delaware Superior Court, is one-sided, of course. We see the texts and emails that Dominion wants us to see. Some lack context; others are heavily redacted. For its part, Fox has said that after the 2020 election, its staff was reporting the news, not making it. “The core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution,” the company said last week.

Fox’s core fear in late 2020 was that even the mildest pushback against election conspiracy theories would send big chunks of its audience to more extreme networks like Newsmax and One America News Network. Several executives landed on the same metaphor: “We’re threading a needle that has to be thread because of the dumb fucks at Fox on Election Day,” executive producer Justin Wells told his colleague Alec Pfeiffer. Or as Pfeiffer would tell Tucker Carlson, “It’s a hard needle to thread, but I really think many on ‘our side’ are being reckless demagogues right now.”

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Wells defined the problem nicely: “We can’t make people think we’ve turned against Trump. Yet also call out the bullshit.” But his, and Fox’s, problem was that this needle couldn’t be threaded. Newsmax ratings went up when they featured Trump hard-liners like Michael Lindell and Sidney Powell. All Fox management could do is transmit ineffective, confusing orders and observations. And all that did was confound or paralyze lower-level managers.

Even Rupert Murdoch didn’t articulate a straightforward strategy, according to messages in the filing. A few days after the election, he told Scott, his top editor, “If Trump becomes a sore loser we should watch Sean especially and others don’t sound the same.” He later told her, “Getting creamed by CNN! Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it.” 

Murdoch wanted to make sure Newsmax was on Scott’s radar, but he didn’t offer a remedy: “These people should be watched, if skeptically.… We don’t want to antagonize Trump further, but Giuliani taken with a large grain of salt. Everything at stake here.”

Lachlan was equally vague. In the immediate aftermath of the election, Scott told him, Fox viewers were still “going through the 5 stages of grief.… we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.” Lachlan replied: “Yes. But needs constant rebuilding without any missteps”

Scott is simultaneously being ordered to rein in her anchors, keep Trump happy, and rebuild the audience—all “without missteps.” In other words, don’t get sucked into conspiracy theories, but don’t lose the viewers who are looking for conspiracy theories.

In the absence of oversight, the anchors took over. A Fox News reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, posted material on Twitter that was critical of Trump’s allegations about Dominion. Carlson pleaded to Hannity, “Please get her fired. Seriously.… What the fuck?” Hannity complained to Scott, Scott complained to Wallace, and the tweet vanished. 

Rupert Murdoch could make suggestions, but they went only so far. The day before the January 6 riot, he told Scott, “It’s been suggested our prime time three should independently or together say something like ‘the election is over and Joe Biden won,’” adding that such a statement “would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election stolen.” Scott forwarded Murdoch’s email to a subordinate while carefully dodging his suggestion: “I told Rupert that privately they are all there—we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers but they know how to navigate.” 

And even as senior newsroom managers fretted among themselves about broadcasting election lies, they were powerless to stop the tide. Ron Mitchell was a senior vice president with editorial oversight of Carlson’s and Hannity’s shows, according to the filing. In texts, he called Powell and Giuliani “clowns” and their allegations “comic book stuff.” Still, the filing notes, he “did nothing to stop Hannity from bringing Powell onto his show to spout lies…or to stop Carlson from bringing top advertiser Mike Lindell onto his show.”

Some mid-level executives misjudged their role, thinking they held more power than they did. Meade Cooper, executive vice president for programming, insisted at one point to Scott, “Clearly, I reject the notion that the hosts don’t have bosses exercising judgment.” And shortly after the election, she texted colleagues about the need to speak to Carlson and Laura Ingraham about, as the filing says, “staying away from election fraud claims.” Yet, as the filing notes, “the primetime shows for which she had oversight repeatedly broadcast false claims.” 

In a more typical environment, when politicians adhere to basic democratic norms, Fox’s model can work spectacularly well. Even in 2016, when Trump first ran for president, Fox could massage his message into something that conservative viewers and voters could embrace, or at least tolerate. But the 2020 election, combined with the January 6 riot, irrevocably changed the formula. A large swath of Fox viewers expect these falsehoods to be served up, unexamined and unadulterated. But in doing so, Fox risks more legal battles and, perhaps, expensive verdicts. No one at the company seems able to thread that needle. 

Bill Grueskin is on the faculty at Columbia Journalism School. He has previously worked as founding editor of a newspaper on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, city editor of the Miami Herald, deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and an executive editor at Bloomberg News. He is a graduate of Stanford University (Classics) and Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies (US Foreign Policy and International Economics).