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.”
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 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 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, crucially, 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. [Continue reading…]