Dominion Voting Systems is suing Fox News for broadcasting lies that its machines rigged the 2020 election. Dominion obtained internal Fox News communications that reveal the network’s complete awareness that conspiracy theories targeting Dominion were false, along with a belief that they had to be given some measure of deference anyway in order to avoid alienating the network’s audience.
Dominion’s objective in its filing is to establish a legal standard of actual malice that would allow it to obtain damages from Fox News, specifically that the network’s employees were “recklessly negligent in failing to check the accuracy of their coverage,” according to the New York Times. (Fox News accuses Dominion of cherry-picking messages.) But what is more interesting to the rest of us is what the filing reveals about Fox News’ ethics.
The election result created a crisis for Fox News. Its journalists understood that Joe Biden won the election without having relied on vote fraud. Even Tucker Carlson understood full well that the conspiracy theories about election-stealing software were nonsense. “The software shit is absurd Half our viewers have seen the Maria clip,” he texted November 8, referring to a positive interview Maria Bartiromo gave to Sidney Powell.
But as the result unfurled, Fox News staff began to complain that its audience was departing. The day after Fox called the election for Biden, Rupert Murdoch wrote to CEO Suzanne Scott, “Getting creamed by CNN! Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it.” Fox senior vice-president for corporate communications Irena Briganti wrote on the evening of November 7, “Our viewers left this week after AZ.”
The most distraught figure was Carlson. “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” he texted his producer. “We’re playing with fire, for real … an alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.”
On November 9, he told Scott, “I’ve never seen a reaction like this, to any media company. Kills me to watch it.”
In the following days, Carlson and his colleagues began to fixate on the financial risk the network faced if a rival competitor such as Newsmax stole its audience by catering more directly to election-fraud claims they knew to be false.
In a group text, Sean Hannity wrote to Carlson and Laura Ingraham on November 12: “In one week and one debate they destroyed a brand that took 25 years to build and the damage is incalculable.” Carlson replied, “It’s vandalism.” Contemplating a potential rival conservative network, Hannity mused, “Serious $$ with serious distribution could be a real problem. Imho they need to address but wtf do I know.” Carlson replied, “That could happen.”
Later that night, Carlson pointed Hannity to a tweet by Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich, which fact-checked a tweet by Trump that mentioned Dominion voting conspiracy theories. “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised,” she wrote.
“Please get her fired,” Carlson texted Hannity and Ingraham. “Seriously … What the fuck? I’m actually shocked. It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
You can imagine Carlson making the shocked face he uses on television to recount the horrifying realization that a news colleague had stated something he knew to be true. Because it would hurt the stock price.
Carlson and Hannity assured each other that they had both gone to management with complaints that Heinrich had put Fox News’ business model at risk by correcting a false claim by Trump. “I just went crazy on Meade over it,” Carlson wrote, referring to an executive named Meade Cooper. Hannity replied that he “already sent to Suzanne with a really?”
Heinrich, according to the Times, deleted her offending tweet, though she posted a nearly identical fact-check of Trump afterwards.
Carlson’s motivation in remaking himself from a respected and skilled features writer into a white-nationalist demagogue has long been the subject of curiosity. Unlike many of his colleagues, who are widely seen as legitimate morons, Carlson has (or at least had) enough intelligence to see through the rank propaganda he peddles every night. The Dominion internal communications go a long way toward putting the mystery to rest.