Fox News hosts, execs privately doubted 2020 election fraud claims shared on air
The Washington Post February 17, 2023
Fox News's most prominent hosts and top executives agonized behind the scenes in the weeks following the 2020 election as they watched allies of Donald Trump appear on their own airwaves promoting theories about a stolen election, according to internal emails, text messages and depositions excerpted in a new court filing.
"Sidney Powell is lying," Tucker Carlson wrote to a producer about the Trump lawyer, who once claimed in a guest spot that voting technology companies "flipped" Trump votes to Biden.
"Terrible stuff damaging everybody," wrote company founder Rupert Murdoch, about wild claims raised by Powell and fellow Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani. The recipient of his note, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, agreed. In another message, Murdoch referred to the claims as "really crazy stuff" and said that it was "very hard to credibly claim foul everywhere."
And of Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, Fox's prime-time roster seemed to share a common opinion during these fraught weeks.
"[He's] acting like an insane person," wrote Sean Hannity, star of the network's 9 p.m. show, while his 10 p.m. colleague Laura Ingraham concurred: "Such an idiot."
The messages are part of a cache of internal correspondence and deposition testimony released Thursday in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against the network filed by Dominion Voting Systems, one of the two election software companies at the center of the election fraud claims.
The documents provide a rare window into the inner workings of the cable news network and show how publicly Trump-friendly personalities were privately repulsed by the president's post-election actions, with Carlson referring to Trump as a "demonic force," according to the filings.
The filing in Delaware Superior Court ahead of an April trial is meant to bolster Dominion's argument that Fox's leadership was aware that the claims of election fraud were untrue but nonetheless "spread and endorsed" them, the company argued.
"Not a single Fox witness testified that they believe any of the allegations about Dominion are true," Dominion argued in the filing. "Indeed, Fox witness after Fox witness declined to assert the allegations' truth or actually stated they do not believe them, and Fox witnesses repeatedly testified that they have not seen credible evidence to support them."
Fox's news staff was just as loud in raising internal concerns as the star pundits and executives, the filings show. In one message, Fox correspondent Lucas Tomlinson wrote to news anchor Bret Baier referring to "dangerously insane" election claims. Baier, in turn, wrote that "there is NO evidence of fraud" and told Bill Sammon, then the network's Washington bureau chief, that their team must "prevent this stuff," meaning the spread of misinformation.
In a statement, Fox News downplayed the revelations from the correspondence, saying it was filled with "cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context."
"There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners," a spokesperson said, "but the core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v. Sullivan."
In a separate counterclaim filing also made public Thursday, Fox alleged that Dominion's $1.6 billion demand "has no factual support," arguing that - far from having its value destroyed by Powell and Giuliani's claims of fraud - the company is actually "in a solid financial position."
While much of the correspondence aired by Dominion shows Fox officials agonizing over false information on its airwaves, some of the behind-the-scenes torment was about a story the network got right - an election-night projection that Joe Biden would win the hotly contested state of Arizona.
Fox's decision-desk analysts were days ahead of other news outlets in making the controversial call, which infuriated Trump and his supporters - including many Fox viewers.
"Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we've lost with our audience?" Carlson wrote in a text message to his producer. "We're playing with fire, for real."
Scott, who forwarded Carlson's concerns about the Arizona call to Fox Corp. CEO and Executive Chairman Lachlan Murdoch, was quoted as saying that Fox's "brand" was impacted by the "arrogance" of the early - but accurate - call.
Dominion is using such messages to make the argument that Fox was motivated by competitive pressures from smaller pro-Trump cable stations like Newsmax that threatened to lure away its viewers. Carlson, in his message, specifically warned that Newsmax "could be devastating to us."
Fox News President Jay Wallace acknowledged in a text message to Scott that it was "a bit troubling" to see Newsmax pick up Fox viewers - an ultimately short-lived gain - adding that the rival network offered "an alternate universe" but that "it can't be ignored."
Newsmax "should be watched, if skeptically," Rupert Murdoch told Scott in a Nov. 16, 2020 email, adding that he doesn't "want to antagonize Trump further."
And Scott and Lachlan Murdoch commiserated over how their pro-Trump viewers were "going through the 5 stages of grief," as Scott put it, promising her corporate boss that Fox would "plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them." Her boss agreed that a "constant rebuilding without any missteps" was needed after the Arizona call.
"We can fix this," Scott wrote, "but we cannot smirk at our viewers any longer."
Dominion's filings also suggest that Fox brass bristled when its own reporters attempted to push back on election fraud claims on the air. "If this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted," Scott wrote in a message after reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked a Trump tweet containing misinformation about Dominion. In a text message, Carlson suggested to Hannity that Heinrich should be fired. Kristin Fisher, then a White House reporter for Fox who has since moved to CNN, testified that her then-boss told her higher-ups were "unhappy" with her own fact-checking segment.
In Fox's own brief requesting the judge rule in its favor, attorneys argue that Fox showed no "actual malice" - the high standard required in defamation cases - because all of the hosts who allowed claims to be aired honestly believed there was a chance the election might have been stolen using Dominion's machines.
"It is hardly unusual that some people in a newsroom (with the diverse political viewpoints one would expect) will disbelieve the allegations and hope that they ultimately prove false," Fox's lawyers wrote, "while others will keep an open mind in hopes that they prove true."
But Hannity, for one, said in a deposition quoted in the Dominion filing that he never believed Powell's claims. "Nobody ever convinced me that their argument was anywhere near accurate or true."