Records in the Fox defamation case show pressure on reporters

NEW YORK — It wasn’t critics, political enemies or their bosses that united Fox News stars Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham when they came together via text message for a showdown shortly after the 2020 election.

It was their own network’s news division.

“They are pathetic,” Carlson wrote.

“THEY ARE NOT SMART,” Ingraham pointed out.

“What news have they heard in the last four years?” Hannity asked.

The November 13, 2020, conversation was among thousands of pages of documents recently released in connection with Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox over its post-election reporting. Like much of what has been revealed, the exchange may ultimately have little bearing on whether Fox is found guilty of defamation.

Instead, the material offers insight into how Fox’s stars and leadership responded during a time of high stress, and how giving the audience what they wanted to hear trumped reporting uncomfortable truths.

The revelations have bolstered critics who say Fox News Channel should be considered a propaganda network rather than a news outlet.

But while Fox’s news side has seen the high-profile departures of Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace in recent years, it still employs plenty of respectable journalists — including Jennifer Griffin, Greg Palkot, John Roberts, Shannon Bream, Bryan Llenas, Jacqui Heinrich and Chad Pergram.

They’re left wondering whether the spate of recent stories on Fox — from the Dominion documents to Carlson’s use of U.S. Capitol security footage to craft his own narrative about the Jan. 6, 2021 attack — will do the trick. the most difficult. Will fewer want to work with them because of the dominance of Fox’s point of view?

Fox says it has increased its investment in journalism by more than 50 percent under Suzanne Scott, chief executive of Fox News Media, and routinely leads rivals in ratings during major breaking news.

“We are incredibly proud of our team of reporters who continue to deliver breaking news from around the world and will continue to fight to preserve the First Amendment,” the network said in a statement.

The 2020 post-election period offered a stern test. The network’s announcement on election night that Joe Biden had won Arizona ahead of any other news organization outraged its viewers. Many agreed with former President Donald Trump’s claims of significant voter fraud, even if, as then, there was no evidence of it.

After covering a Nov. 19 news conference with Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, then-Fox reporter Christine Fisher said her Washington boss, Brian Boughton, called to say he was unhappy with her report. She said she was told she needed to do a better job of “respecting our audience,” according to documents released in the case.

“I thought I was respecting our audience by telling them the truth,” Fisher, who now works at CNN, testified in a deposition in the Dominion case.

She later claimed her airtime was taken away in retaliation.

Heinrich drew the ire of Fox pollsters by tweeting a fact-check on some of Trump’s claims. In a text message, Carlson profanely said she should be fired.

“He has serious nerve doing this,” Fox publicity chief Irena Briganti said in an internal memo circulated among court papers, “and if that gets out, viewers will be even more disgusted. Her job is to report, not mock the president of the United States.”

During a Nov. 14 text conversation, Scott and Lachlan Murdoch, Fox Corp.’s executive chairman and CEO, talked about how a Trump rally should be covered on the network.

“The news guys need to be careful how they cover this rally,” Murdoch said. “So far some of the side comments have been slightly adversarial, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative has to be this massive celebration of the president.”

In another message, he called Fox correspondent Leland Vittert “stern and obnoxious.” Vittert now works at NewsNation.

A week after the election, a senior Fox Corp. executive, Raj Shah, said in a memo that “bold, clear and decisive action is needed to begin to regain the trust we are losing from our core audience.”

Dominion argues, as part of its lawsuit, that nervousness about what its viewers wanted led Fox to air allegations that the voting machine company was complicit in fraud that hurt Trump, even though many people at the network did not believe them. In his own testimony, Fox founder Rupert Murdoch agreed that the election was fair and “not rigged.”

Fox counters that it aired newsworthy accusations from the president and his followers.

Concern over Arizona’s reactions spread to the news department, according to court documents. Fox News anchor Brett Baier said the defense of the call made him uncomfortable and suggested the state be handed to Trump instead. Roberts also sent a note saying he had taken “a lot of heat” for the decision.

In 2012, Fox strongly stood behind its decision office when network commentator and veteran GOP aide Karl Rove disputed its correct call that Barack Obama had won Ohio, effectively assuring him of re-election over Republican Mitt. Romney.

In an unforgettable television moment, Megyn Kelly marched down the aisle to hear the decision office explain why the call was made.

Eight years later, signs of cowardice in Fox appeared in the days after her call to Arizona. When other news organizations finally declared Biden president-elect on the Saturday morning after the election, Fox waited about 15 minutes.

On November 20, 2020, Rupert Murdoch discussed with Scott in a private memo whether two Washington staffers who were key to the Arizona race should be fired, saying it would send a “big message” to Trump allies. The executives, Bill Sammon and Chris Stirewalt, lost their jobs two months later.

A Fox spokeswoman characterized discussions of the Arizona call as part of a typical post-mortem that occurs after major news events. Despite “intense scrutiny,” Fox stood by its call. Although Sammon and Stirewalt were forced out, Fox retained consultant Arnon Mishkin, who heads its decision office, for the 2024 election.

Scott, accountable to corporate bosses, noted in her deposition that she considered herself a television producer.

“I don’t consider myself a journalist,” the Fox News Media chief said. “I consider myself a TV executive. I’m hiring journalists. I’m hiring news people.”

Longtime Fox News Channel chief Roger Ailes wasn’t even a journalist — his background was in politics. To some longtime Fox watchers, however, Ailes recognized that Fox’s view drew strength from a solid side of the news and kept stronger barriers between the two.

Some of the information revealed in recent weeks demonstrates how, in many ways, Fox has become less of an agenda-setter than an outlet that follows its audience, said Nicole Hemmer, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s’.

To date, no one in Fox management has spoken about the Dominion affair to its reporters, leaving some to wonder if anyone is standing up for them, said one Fox reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional retribution.

“There’s still some fine journalism on Fox News today,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He mentioned the transition of “Fox News Sunday” from Wallace to Bream.

The fallout from the Dominion case, however, leaves open the question of whether Fox reporters will be allowed to do their jobs unfettered by other powers, he said.

“It would be helpful for Fox News, at this point, to make a clear statement that the news division has full and complete autonomy and that there is a clear line between it and the rest of Fox,” Jamieson said.


Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix, Gary Fields in Washington, Jennifer Peltz in New York and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

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