Inside Story

Damaging the brand

The Dominion Voting Systems legal suit against Fox News has already unearthed damning evidence from within the Murdoch-owned network

Rodney Tiffen 7 March 2023 2679 words

“Really crazy stuff”: Fox News’s owner, Rupert Murdoch. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

“Everything at stake here,” Rupert Murdoch told Fox News’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, on 16 November 2020. When Joe Biden had decisively defeated Donald Trump in the presidential election a fortnight earlier, the Murdochs had initially accepted the result. Now, Fox’s audience was leaving in droves and the network was in crisis.

Although the Murdochs strongly supported Trump during his presidency, and although the audience for their American media tended to be pro-Republican, they were ready to face facts after the election-night count. Fox News’s chief political correspondent, Bret Baier, saw “no evidence of fraud. None.” Murdoch’s New York Post urged Trump to accept the result. His “baseless” stolen-election rhetoric “undermines faith in democracy and faith in the nation,” said the paper.

Along with the Associated Press, the network had made an early call for Biden in the crucial state of Arizona on election night. It proved to be the right call, but it infuriated the Trump camp as premature, if not wilfully wrong.

As we now know from internal documents obtained by Dominion Voting Systems as part of its legal action against Fox News, key Fox figures were already railing against what they saw as an audience-alienating decision on election night. “We worked really hard to build what we have,” high-profile anchor Tucker Carlson wrote on 5 November. “Those fuckers” — senior editor Bill Sammon and reporter Chris Stirewalt, who had decided to call Arizona for Biden — “are destroying our credibility. It enrages me.”

“The audience feels like we crapped on [them],” wrote Scott, “and we have damaged their trust and belief in us… We can fix this but we cannot smirk at our viewers any longer.” Sammon and Stirewalt were soon forced out of Fox, not for making a professional error but for their “arrogance” and for damaging the “brand.”

The clashes continued. On the night of 12 November, Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich tweeted that “top election infrastructure officials” had found “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” An indignant Tucker Carlson wrote to his colleagues: “Please get her fired. Seriously… What the fuck? … It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Again, Scott took the same line. Heinrich “has serious nerve doing this,” she wrote, “and if this gets picked up viewers are going to be further disgusted.” By morning Heinrich had deleted the tweet. (The New York Times later reported: “While she removed a tweet in which Mr. Trump had tagged her colleagues Sean Hannity and Lou Dobbs, she posted the same fact check in response to a different tweet from Mr Trump that made the same false claim but did not tag her colleagues.”)

Fox’s White House correspondent Kristin Fisher got similarly short shrift when she fact-checked fraud claims by lawyer Sidney Powell and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. She was immediately told by phone that higher-ups were unhappy and she needed to do a better job of “respecting our audience.”

Respect was suddenly Fox’s word of the moment, Fox’s prime-time anchor Sean Hannity was arguing that “respecting this audience whether we agree or not is critical. Fox has spent the last month spitting at them.” For outsiders, though, nurturing the audience’s delusions and punishing staff who behave professionally might seem a strange sort of respect.

In the early days after the election, when Fox seemed ready to accept the result, the network’s rating began declining. It was “getting creamed by CNN!” wrote Murdoch, but much more troubling was the number of viewers who were switching — with Trump’s encouragement — to upstart rivals on their right, Newsmax and One America News.

On 9 November Trump retweeted a series of stories from Newsmax claiming election fraud. Three days later his attacks on Fox escalated in a flurry of tweets encouraging viewers to switch to other networks. By the end of that day, Fox stocks were down 6 per cent; by mid November the network’s daytime audience had fallen from a pre-election 2.4 million to just 1.6 million, and its prime-time audience from 5.3 million to 3.5 million. Newsmax’s viewer numbers increased sixfold, from 57,000 to 329,000.

Fox News had become prisoner of the monster it had created. An audience fed on fantasies couldn’t face the new reality. “To be honest,” one producer said, “our audience doesn’t want to hear about a peaceful transition.” A network executive conceded that “conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled viewer is looking for.” Commercial profitability and professional integrity were pulling in opposite directions.

This was the moment when management announced its dramatic pivot. Scott called 9 November, six days after the election, “Day One” and committed the network to pushing “narratives that would entice their audience back.” She was, she said, “trying to get everyone to comprehend we are on a war footing.” Two themes figured prominently in subsequent Fox News internal communications: “brand” and “respecting the audience.” Both would override accuracy and other professional scruples.

The on-air results of Scott’s directive were dramatic: by the end of the second week after Fox News had called the election for Biden, it had “questioned the results of the election or pushed conspiracy theories about it at least 774 times,” according to Media Matters for America. Off-air, Fox News’s chief financial officer reported on 8 December that Fox’s “ratings momentum has been extraordinary [and] it is feeding absolutely into advertising strength.” Scott was rewarded with a multi-year extension to her contract.

Newly focused on promoting claims of electoral fraud, the network’s primary targets were Dominion Voting Systems and Smartmatic, the two companies that provided electronic voting equipment for the election. Powell and Giuliani were the Trump associates most vigorously accusing the companies of having conspired to alter the election results.

Powell asserted that Trump had won not just by hundreds of thousands but by millions of votes shifted in Biden’s favour by Dominion’s software. “It’s really the most massive and historical egregious fraud the world has ever seen,” she said. Her dramatic claims had audience appeal. When research showed that viewers were switching to Newsmax specifically to watch her as a guest, Hannity brought Powell onto his program.

Giuliani was equally emphatic: Dominion’s machine “was developed to steal elections.” Dominion was “an organised criminal enterprise… started in Venezuela with Cuban money.” The intemperance of his language was no barrier to repeated appearances on Fox.

Of the several Fox presenters who took up the theme, the most extreme was Lou Dobbs. “Read all about Dominion and Smartmatic voting companies and you’ll soon understand how pervasive this Democrat electoral fraud is,” he tweeted, “and there’s no way in the world the 2020 presidential election was either free or fair.” It was “an electoral 9/11 against the United States, with the cooperation and collusion of the media and the Democrat Party and China.” “It is a cyber Pearl Harbor,” he added. “We have technical presentations that prove there is an embedded controller in every Dominion machine.”

Even the Trump campaign distanced itself from the seemingly unhinged Powell and Giuliani. Trump ally Chris Christie called Powell a “national embarrassment” and Trump’s legal team thought Giuliani was “deranged.” Although the Trump campaign disavowed Powell on 22 November, she and Giuliani continued to appear on Fox for several more weeks.

Even after the 6 January attacks on the Capitol, Fox continued to host guests who claimed the election was stolen. On 26 January Carlson interviewed My Pillow chief executive Mike Lindell after he was banned from Twitter for promoting lies about Dominion and the election. Lindell repeated those lies without any challenge from Carlson. Not coincidentally, Lindell is one of Fox News’s biggest sponsors. According to Murdoch’s deposition in the Dominion case, Lindell “pays us a lot of money.” “It is not red or blue, it is green” — it is about money rather than politics — he agreed when questioned by Dominion’s lawyers.

Given the frequency and severity of the attacks on Dominion, the company’s decision to sue Fox News came as no surprise. Dominion also sued Newsmax and its three most prominent accusers, Powell, Giuliani and Lindell. (The other voting machine company, Smartmatic, has also sued Fox News.) The fallout has already been spectacular. Dominion has gained access to thousands of internal Fox News documents revealing extraordinary cynicism and hypocrisy among executives and producers.

A media organisation can’t successfully be sued for defamation by a public figure in America unless malice can be shown, and any effort to do that usually relies on inferences and indirect evidence. Not in this case: “I have never seen a defamation case with such overwhelming proof that the defendant admitted in writing that it was making up fake information in order to increase its viewership and its revenues,” Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe told the Guardian. “Fox and its producers and performers were lying as part of their business model.”

The contrast between what the Fox News personnel were saying to each other and what they were saying on air was stark. Disparaging descriptions of Powell, Giuliani and other fraud-pushers — “mind-blowingly nuts,” “totally off the rails,” “crazy,” “absurd” and “shockingly reckless” — figure frequently in their internal communications, but didn’t stop “really crazy stuff” (in Murdoch’s words) being put to air. Commenting on one program, Fox president Jay Wallace observed that “the North Koreans do a more nuanced show.”

Not a single Fox witness testified that they believed the allegations about the voting-machine company to be true, according to Dominion’s account of the deposition evidence. Fox’s internal fact-checking department, the Brainroom, also said the claims against Dominion were wrong.

“Sidney Powell is lying; she is a complete nut,” Carlson told his fellow prime-time anchor Laura Ingraham. “No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.” “Nut” seems close to the mark: in an email to Maria Bartiromo, whose show she had appeared on several times, Powell said her source of information on Dominion was a person who described herself as “internally decapitated,” capable of “time travel in a semi-conscious state” and able to speak to “the Wind” as “a ghost.” Apparently this raised no red flags at Fox.

These internal communications provide excellent ammunition for Dominion, and there are further reasons why the company is likely to receive extremely high damages. Most defamation cases involve a single article or a short series by a small number of individual journalists, whereas this one involves a blizzard of segments over several months.

Dominion’s suit focuses on twenty statements across six Fox programs. It argues that “literally dozens of people with editorial responsibility — from the top of the organisation to the producers of specific shows to the hosts themselves — acted with actual malice.”

Likely to add to the damages is the fact that Dominion communicated 3600 times with Fox during the broadcasting of the contentious segments in order to correct facts. Most importantly, it sent an email titled “Setting the Record Straight,” and a series of updates, to more than ninety of Fox’s reporters, producers and anchors.

Nineteen of the twenty statements were made after Dominion alerted Fox that they were lies and pointed the network to the correct information. But Fox kept defaming Dominion and failed to respond to demands for retractions. “To this day,” says the company, “Fox has never retracted the false statements it broadcast about Dominion.”

While most defamation cases focus on damage to the plaintiff’s general reputation, Fox’s claims went further, undermining Dominion’s very existence as a commercial entity. The company’s business relies on a bipartisan acceptance of its integrity and reliability. Since the Fox News onslaught, several of its contracts have been challenged by Trump Republicans. All Fox’s claims about its audience size and influence are now being used as evidence of the damage done to Dominion.

“As the dominant media company among those viewers dissatisfied with the election results, Fox gave these fictions a prominence they otherwise would never have achieved,” says Dominion, pointing to threats to its employees and the extra security it has been forced to employ.

Fox also showed a corresponding lack of interest in reporting developments counter to the narrative pushed by Trump and his allies. Unmentioned went the fact that Dominion machines are used in twenty-eight states — including battleground states Florida and Ohio, which Biden lost. On 11 November, for instance, Sean Hannity told his audience that the hand recount in Georgia would help resolve questions about Dominion. When the count was completed later that month and the governor of Georgia declared the voting machines had been accurate, Hannity was silent.

The Dominion lawsuit has also ushered in a new phase in the Donald Trump–Rupert Murdoch relationship. The mutually convenient bromance of 2016–20 is long gone. Murdoch’s American newspapers have consistently editorialised against Trump’s claims of a rigged election. The Wall Street Journal declared the charges against Dominion baseless. After the midterm Congressional elections, in which the candidates Trump most closely embraced performed poorly, the Journal called him an electoral liability. The New York Post was much cheekier, with a front-page caricature of Trump as Humpty Dumpty under the headline “Trumpty Dumpty.”

The initial cache of documents released by Dominion late last month showed that Murdoch thought Trump’s claims of fraud were baseless and that he strongly disapproved of them. Ironically, of course, it was one of his organisations, Fox News, that did most to give those baseless claims political currency. In mid December Fox reported a poll saying 70 per cent of Republicans thought the election was rigged because of voter fraud. Without Fox’s intense coverage, we can only guess how much lower that percentage might have been.

The revelation that Murdoch disapproved of Fox’s coverage in principle but encouraged it in practice shows him to be a hypocrite. But the stark contrast between on-air and off-air views also raises crucial questions about how other Fox personnel saw their responsibility. At one stage, Carlson texted Ingraham: “It’s unbelievably offensive to me. Our viewers are good people and they believe it.” It is as if Carlson thought he had to be a passive cipher for Powell and Giuliani’s views, however mistaken. When Maria Bartiromo’s producer was asked “If someone says something untrue on one of your shows, do you think that it’s important to correct it?” she simply replied “No.”

As a result of Murdoch’s deposition in the Dominion case, Trump discovered that after the 6 January Capitol riot Fox News’s owner aimed to make Trump a “non-person.” His response was characteristic:

If Rupert Murdoch honestly believes that the Presidential Election of 2020, despite MASSIVE amounts of proof to the contrary, was not Rigged and Stollen, then he and his group of MAGA Hating Globalist RINOS [Republicans in name only] should get out of the News Business as soon as possible, because they are aiding and abetting the DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA with FAKE NEWS.

Much more will emerge when the court case begins in Delaware on 17 April. Apart from the huge sums of money involved, the case raises fundamental issues about the health of American democracy and the responsibilities of the media. “These lies did not simply harm Dominion,” the voting-technology company argues. “They harmed democracy. They harmed the idea of credible elections. They harmed a once-unshakeable faith in democratic transfers of power.”

Fox News was a crucial ally of Trump in his attempt to reject the election outcome, and many of the radicals who stormed the Capitol on 6 January would have viewed the claims of electoral fraud broadcast repeatedly on the network. It is this association that Crikey’s Bernard Keane probably had in mind when he attributed to the Murdochs part of the blame for the riots, an assertion that prompted Lachlan Murdoch to sue under Australian defamation laws.

Never has a court case in Delaware been more keenly watched in two Sydney law chambers than Dominion’s will be. •

Article updated 12 March to include the New York Times’s clarification in relation to Jacqui Heinrich’s tweet.