Fox Stars Privately Expressed Disbelief About Election Fraud Claims. ‘Crazy Stuff.’
"The comments, by Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and others, were released as part of a defamation suit against Fox News by Dominion Voter Systems.
Newly disclosed messages and testimony from some of the biggest stars and most senior executives at Fox News revealed that they privately expressed disbelief about President Donald J. Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, even though the network continued to promote many of those lies on the air.
The hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, as well as others at the company, repeatedly insulted and mocked Trump advisers, including Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani, in text messages with each other in the weeks after the election, according to a legal filing on Thursday by Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion is suing Fox for defamation in a case that poses considerable financial and reputational risk for the country’s most-watched cable news network.
“Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane,” Mr. Carlson wrote to Ms. Ingraham on Nov. 18, 2020.
Ms. Ingraham responded: “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.”
Mr. Carlson continued, “Our viewers are good people and they believe it,” he added, making clear that he did not.
The messages also show that such doubts extended to the highest levels of the Fox Corporation, with Rupert Murdoch, its chairman, calling Mr. Trump’s voter fraud claims “really crazy stuff.”
On one occasion, as Mr. Murdoch watched Mr. Giuliani and Ms. Powell on television, he told Suzanne Scott, chief executive of Fox News Media, “Terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear.”
Dominion’s brief depicts Ms. Scott, whom colleagues have described as sharply attuned to the sensibilities of the Fox audience, as being well aware that Mr. Trump’s claims were baseless. And when another Murdoch-owned property, The New York Post, published an editorial urging Mr. Trump to stop complaining that he had been cheated, Ms. Scott distributed it widely among her staff. Mr. Murdoch then thanked her for doing so, the brief says.
The filing, in state court in Delaware, contains the most vivid and detailed picture yet of what went on behind the scenes at Fox News and its corporate parent in the days and weeks after the 2020 election, when the conservative cable network’s coverage took an abrupt turn.
Fox News stunned the Trump campaign on election night by becoming the first news outlet to declare Joseph R. Biden Jr. the winner of Arizona — effectively projecting that he would become the next president. Then, as Fox’s ratings fell sharply after the election and the president refused to concede, many of the network’s most popular hosts and shows began promoting outlandish claims of a far-reaching voter fraud conspiracy involving Dominion machines to deny Mr. Trump a second term.
What was disclosed on Thursday was not the full glimpse of Dominion’s case against Fox. The 192-page filing had multiple redactions that contain more revelations about deliberations inside the network. Fox has sought to keep much of the evidence against it under seal. The New York Times is challenging the legality of those redactions in court.
In its defense, which was also filed with the court on Thursday, Fox argued that by covering Mr. Trump’s fraud claims, the network was doing what any media organization would: reporting and commenting on a matter of undeniable newsworthiness. And it noted that many of its programs did not endorse the claim that the election was stolen.
“In its coverage, Fox News fulfilled its commitment to inform fully and comment fairly,” its brief said. “Some hosts viewed the president’s claims skeptically; others viewed them hopefully; all recognized them as profoundly newsworthy.”
The law shields journalists from liability if they report on false statements, but not if they promote them.
Dominion said in its filing that not a single Fox witness had testified that he or she believed any of the allegations about Dominion.
In a statement on Thursday, a Fox spokeswoman said, “Dominion has mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law.”
The brief shows that Fox News stars and executives were afraid of losing their audience, which started to defect to the conservative cable news alternatives Newsmax and OAN after Fox News called Arizona for Mr. Biden. And they seemed concerned with the impact that would have on the network’s profitability.
On Nov. 12, in a text chain with Ms. Ingraham and Mr. Hannity, Mr. Carlson pointed to a tweet in which a Fox reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, fact-checked a tweet from Mr. Trump referring to Fox broadcasts and said there was no evidence of voter fraud from Dominion.
“Please get her fired,” Mr. Carlson said. He added: “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.” Ms. Heinrich had deleted her tweet by the next morning.
The details offer more than dramatic vignettes from inside a news organization where internal disputes rarely spill into public view. They are pieces of evidence that a jury could use to weigh whether to find Fox liable for significant financial damages. Dominion is asking for $1.6 billion as compensation for the damage it says it suffered as Fox guests and hosts claimed, for instance, that Dominion’s voting machines had been designed to rig elections for the Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez and were equipped with an algorithm that could erase votes from one candidate and give them to another.
Fox Corporation has about $4 billion cash on hand, according to its latest quarterly earnings report.
The burden in the case falls on Dominion to prove that Fox acted with actual malice — the longstanding legal standard that requires Dominion to prove that either Fox guests, hosts and executives knew what was being said on the air was false and allowed it anyway, or that people inside Fox were recklessly negligent in failing to check the accuracy of their coverage.
That burden is difficult to meet, which is why defamation cases often fail. But legal experts said Dominion’s arguments were stronger than most.
“This filing argues a fire hose of direct evidence of knowing falsity,” said RonNell Andersen Jones, a professor of law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah. “It gives a powerful preview of one of the best-supported claims of actual malice we have seen in any major-media case.”
Many defamation suits are quickly dismissed because of the First Amendment’s broad free speech protections. If they do go forward, they are usually settled out of court to spare both sides the costly spectacle of a trial. The Dominion case has proceeded with a speed and scope that media experts have said is unusual.
For eight months, Dominion lawyers have taken depositions from dozens of people at all levels of the network and its parent company. Mr. Murdoch was deposed last month. (Dominion’s brief was written before that deposition and does not reflect its contents, which remain under seal.) Mr. Hannity, one of the most popular prime-time hosts and a close Trump ally, has been deposed twice. And the personal phones and emails of many midlevel employees have been searched as part of the discovery process, which people inside the company have said has created an atmosphere of considerable unease.
Both sides appear dug in and confident of victory. The judge has scheduled jury selection to begin in mid-April.
Fox has contested how Dominion arrived at the amount it is seeking in damages, arguing that the company has vastly overstated its valuation and the reputational harm it suffered.
In papers filed with the court on Thursday, lawyers for Fox called the $1.6 billion sum “a staggering figure that has no factual support and serves no apparent purpose other than to generate headlines, chill First Amendment-protected speech.”
Fox’s lawyers added that Staple Street Capital Partners, the private equity firm that owns a majority share in Dominion, had paid about $38 million for its 76 percent stake in the company in 2018 and had never estimated Dominion’s financial value to be worth “anywhere near $1.6 billion.” Fox has made a counterclaim against Dominion seeking to recover all its costs associated with the lawsuit.
Dominion’s goal, aside from convincing a jury that Fox knowingly spread lies, is to build a case that points straight to the top of the Fox media empire and its founding family, the Murdochs.
“Fox knew,” the Dominion filing declares. “From the top down, Fox knew.”
The brief cites senior executives and editors responsible for shaping Fox’s coverage behind the scenes who weren’t buying the election denial, either.
“No reasonable person would have thought that,” said the network’s politics editor at the time, Chris Stirewalt, referring to the allegation that Dominion rigged the election. Bill Sammon, Fox’s managing editor in Washington, is quoted as saying, “It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things.”
Fox pushed out both journalists after the 2020 election.
Ron Mitchell, a senior Fox executive who oversaw the Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham shows, texted privately with colleagues that the Dominion allegations were “the Bill Gates/microchip angle to voter fraud,” referring to false claims that microchips were injected into people who received Covid-19 vaccines.
At times, Fox employees are described as disparaging one another. The president of the network, Jay Wallace, is quoted at one point criticizing the former Fox Business host Lou Dobbs — one of the biggest megaphones for Mr. Trump’s lies. “The North Koreans do a more nuanced show” than Mr. Dobbs, the brief says.
On Nov. 6, 2020, three days after Election Day, as Mr. Biden pulled into the lead, Mr. Murdoch told Ms. Scott in an email that it was going to be “very hard to credibly cry foul everywhere,” and noted that “if Trump becomes a sore loser, we should watch Sean especially,” referring to Mr. Hannity."
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