Trump spurred ‘existential crisis’ at Fox News, lawsuit exhibits show
‘I hate him passionately,’ Tucker Carlson wrote of Donald Trump in a text to a colleague on Jan. 4, 2021
For years, Fox News executives and hosts cultivated a close relationship with Donald Trump. But after he lost the 2020 presidential election and turned his back on the network — inspiring many once-loyal viewers to do the same — the relationship curdled.
And the ensuing pressure caused tension, second-guessing and infighting within Fox on the scale of an “existential crisis,” as one senior executive called it, a cache of internal communications released Tuesday as part of a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit indicates.
“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” prime-time host Tucker Carlson texted a colleague on Jan. 4, 2021. “I truly can’t wait.”
Carlson, who had shared private meetings with the president and defended him on-air, added in a text: “I hate him passionately. … What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”
Carlson’s private thoughts are especially striking in light of a new round of criticism this week that he misrepresented exclusive security-camera footage from the U.S. Capitol through a lens of Trumpian misinformation to downplay the severity of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
Dominion Voting Systems, an election-technology company, has sued Fox, arguing that the cable-news giant gravely hurt its economic future by allowing allies of Trump to claim falsely on Fox programs that it rigged the election in favor of Joe Biden.
The materials unveiled Tuesday included a large selection of exhibits mentioned in past legal motions that have generated headlines and controversy for the network. Internal communications and sworn testimony suggest that top executives and hosts privately doubted the veracity of election fraud claims even as Fox continued to air them — which Dominion argues was motivated by fear of losing Trump-supporting viewers.
“Maybe Sean and Laura went too far,” Fox’s billionaire co-founder Rupert Murdoch emailed the company CEO, referring to prime-time stars Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, who had entertained the baseless election conspiracy theories on-air.
“All very well for Sean to tell you he was in despair about Trump,” Murdoch continued, “but what did he tell his viewers?”
What emerges from the emails is an organization riven by internal conflicts as they grappled with the burgeoning crisis spawned by the loss of favor from Trump — which threatened to send some of his most ardent supporters to rival cable news channels.
Fox News has defended its decision to air the claims of Trump’s attorneys by saying they were newsworthy arguments. And in a statement Tuesday, Fox representatives dismissed the significance of the newly revealed exhibits, saying that Dominion used “distortion and misinformation” and that the company “twist[ed] and even misattribut[ed] quotes” in presenting the material.
Not long after Murdoch agonized over whether his hosts had “gone too far,” one of the most high-ranking news editors, Bill Sammon, texted a colleague: “In my 22 years affiliated with Fox, this is the closest thing I’ve seen to an existential crisis — at least journalistically.” The “crisis” was the network’s continued focus on what Sammon called “supposed election fraud.”
His colleague Chris Stirewalt, then a politics editor who played a key role in Fox’s decision to call Arizona for Biden, replied: “What I see us doing is losing the silent majority of viewers as we chase the nuts off a cliff.” (Both Sammon and Stirewalt were later pushed out of their jobs at Fox.)
Ingraham and Carlson also disparaged Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, a Nov. 18, 2020, text conversation shows.
Ingraham texted Carlson that “Giuliani embarrassed the President” during court battles over the election. Ingraham, who previously worked as an attorney, scoffed that Giuliani was unable to answer a judge’s questions that “a second year law student would known.”
She went on to call another prominent member of Trump’s legal team, Sidney Powell, “a complete nut,” and stated that “no one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.”
Yet even while mocking the conspiratorial claims, the prime-time hosts also expressed frustration at decisions by the network’s news division to contradict some of those claims. And they expressed special disdain for the news division’s early prediction that Biden would win the hotly contested state of Arizona — an announcement that infuriated Trump and many of his fans.
“We are all officially working for an organization that hates us,” Ingraham wrote in one text thread with Carlson and Hannity.
In another, in mid-November 2020, as they watched Fox viewers flip to more conservative upstart channels, Ingraham wrote to the group, “My anger at the news channel is pronounced.”
Yet as tensions roiled Fox, the faces of the network were not always united in their approach. When Hannity’s producer noted that Carlson was getting “blasted on Twitter” for criticizing Powell on his show, Hannity replied, “His problem.”
“Trump people are … pissed,” Hannity texted his producer, who replied that Hannity’s show succeeded because “we just didn’t talk about Sidney’s claims.”
The newly unveiled exhibits show the extraordinary energy and attention devoted to mollifying Trump and his die-hard supporters in the days after Fox correctly called the election for Biden.
In one internal message, Raj Shah, a Fox Corp. senior vice president, shared survey data with colleagues showing that Fox’s favorability ratings dropped sharply after the election. The network’s brand was “under heavy fire from our customer base,” he wrote. “I’d like to get honest/deeper feedback from Fox viewers on the brand, the handling of the election, if they feel like they have been somehow betrayed by the network.”
(Shah, in a separate communication, called Powell’s election fraud claims “totally insane” and “just MIND BLOWINGLY NUTS.”)
Shah warned senior leaders that Fox’s declining favorability among its core audience was “getting pretty perilous” and said he had shared his views with Lachlan Murdoch, the CEO of the news network’s parent company, as well as Viet Dinh, the company’s chief legal and policy officer. His views, he wrote in an email on Nov. 11, 2020, were that “bold, clear and decisive action is needed for us to begin to regain the trust that we’re losing with our core audience.”
One defamation expert said Dominion’s court filings were striking for what he saw as Fox’s misplaced emphasis of priorities.
“The picture so far shows deep involvement of people responsible for the editorial process who were more concerned about the opinion of certain politicians than the truth,” said David Logan, a professor at Roger Williams School of Law.
Six weeks before the 2020 election, Murdoch emailed Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to weigh in on campaign advertising.
“Know you are spending less on tv than Biden,” Murdoch wrote. “However my people tell me his [advertisements] are a lot better creatively than yours.” He signed the email “Rupert” and appeared to send it using his iPhone.
Kushner replied the next day, assuring the media mogul, “Should have some new creative out this week. I did a review and like what [I’m] seeing.”
But despite Murdoch’s intelligence gathering for Kushner, Trump lost.
Fox News has previously said that Dominion has “cherry-pick[ed]” salacious details “utterly irrelevant to the legal issues in this case.” With these latest filings, the public got a fuller view of the context to some of the blockbuster revelations that came out weeks ago in legal motions.
Defamation cases typically involve one statement or phrase by one individual or a few, not months of on-air monologues and internal exchanges between dozens of individuals.
At their most outlandish, some Fox hosts entertained claims that Dominion was a front for the government of Venezuela and that its voting machines were capable of flipping votes from one candidate to another.
After Rupert Murdoch saw a New York Post cover telling Trump to move on, the Fox Corp. chairman told the paper’s former editor in chief, Col Allan, “Sounds like Donald read this.” An hour later on Dec. 28, 2020, he sent his congratulations to Allan for a “great” editorial.
“If he doesn’t tweet it’ll mean he’s read it and stopped to think,” Murdoch wrote, another example of a fruitless desire to quiet Trump’s baseless election conspiracy claims.
Carlson, in his text exchange with a colleague, expressed his ultimate frustration with Trump’s administration. “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest,” he wrote. “But come on. There really isn’t an upside to Trump.”
Isaac Stanley-Becker, Emma Brown, Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff, Yvonne Wingett Sanchez and Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report."