Inside the 3 Months That Could Cost Fox $1.6 Billion
Since 2002, when Fox News first overtook CNN as the most-watched cable news channel, one thing has been as certain and predictable as its dominance: Every time a Democrat wins the White House, the right-leaning network’s ratings take a momentary dip.
That happened after the election of President Biden in 2020, too. But the reaction inside Fox was far different than before.
There was panic. From the chairman of Fox Corporation on down, executives scrambled as they tried to keep viewers tuned in, believing they were facing a crisis. Now, because of the decisions made after former President Donald J. Trump’s loss, Fox News is reckoning with a threat that could prove far more serious.
A $1.6 billion defamation suit from Dominion Voting Systems claims Fox knowingly spread false information about the role of the firm’s election technology in a made-up conspiracy to flip votes. On Tuesday, the two sides will present oral arguments before a judge in Delaware state court as they prepare for a trial next month.
Fox has insisted that it wasn’t presenting claims about Dominion as fact but was reporting and opining on them as any news organization would.
As part of the suit, Dominion obtained thousands of internal Fox emails and text messages and deposed dozens of Fox employees. That evidence shows in extraordinary detail how the network lost its way in the weeks after the election. Here is a timeline of that fateful period, as told in court filings. Some of these exchanges have been lightly condensed for clarity.
Nov. 3, 2020
A Sales Record
On Election Day, Fox News was riding high. A draft of an internal memo written by the executive who oversees advertising for the network, Jeff Collins, described the sales records the channel had just set.
‘A Lot … to Think About’
But a few days later, when Mr. Biden was declared the president-elect by all the major news organizations, including Fox, viewership started to fall. The company’s top executives, including Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox Corporation, and Suzanne Scott, the chief executive of Fox News Media, noticed.
In an email to Ms. Scott, Mr. Murdoch wrote:
A half-hour later, Ms. Scott forwarded the email to Jay Wallace, the president of Fox News. She described her recent discussion with Mr. Murdoch and his son Lachlan, the chief executive of Fox Corporation, about how the network could begin to regroup post-Trump:
Nov. 10 and 11
‘It’s All Our Viewers Care About’
A week after the election, a consensus quickly hardened inside the network: It could not continue to lose viewers to a much smaller right-wing cable news rival, Newsmax.
Fox News v. Dominion Voter Systems
Documents from a lawsuit filed by the voting machine maker Dominion against Fox News have shed light on the debate inside the network over false claims related to the 2020 election.
- Running Fox: Emails that lawyers for Dominion have used to build their defamation case give a peek into how Rupert Murdoch shapes coverage at his news organizations.
- Behind the Curtain: Texts and emails released as part of the lawsuit show how Fox employees privately mocked election fraud claims made by former President Donald J. Trump, even as the network amplified them to appease viewers.
- Tucker Carlson’s Private Contempt: The Fox host’s private comments, revealed in court documents, contrast sharply with his support of Mr. Trump on his show.
- A Show of Support: In his first public remarks since the recent revelations on Fox News, Mr. Murdoch’s son Lachlan, the chief executive of the Fox Corporation, issued a full-throated show of support for Suzanne Scott, who is at the helm of Fox News Media.
Dana Perino, a Fox News host and former spokeswoman for President George W. Bush, texted Colin Reed, a Republican strategist, about the worry brewing:
Another host, Tucker Carlson, texted with his producer, Alex Pfeiffer, about the fact that viewers were angry that Mr. Carlson had ignored allegations of voter fraud that night in his broadcast — a subject that Newsmax had been hammering:
‘I Do Not Know if This Is True or Not’
Around the same time, there was also concern that some of what Fox hosts and guests were alleging on the air might be wrong. Fox Business’s senior vice president of programming, Gary Schreier, wrote to a group of Fox executives to alert them about an unfounded rumor that the Fox Business host Lou Dobbs had just floated on the air. Mr. Schreier was evidently concerned it could become a public relations headache.
‘Everything at Stake Here’
Rupert Murdoch’s concerns remained focused on the continued ratings decline. In an email to Ms. Scott, he wrote:
Quickly, the shows that peddled false information began to see a lift in ratings.
Mr. Schreier texted his boss at Fox Business, Lauren Petterson, about the viewership for “Sunday Morning Futures,” the political talk show hosted by Maria Bartiromo. But at the same time, the two executives appeared concerned that Dominion’s side of the story wasn’t being told on Mr. Dobbs’s show or Ms. Bartiromo’s.
‘Respecting Our Audience’
When Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, members of Mr. Trump’s legal team, held a news conference and spouted elaborate conspiracy theories about stolen votes, Kristin Fisher, a correspondent who covered the White House for Fox News, reported on it for the network. Her report was full of fact-checks and highly skeptical — too skeptical for her higher-ups at Fox.
Shortly after she got off the air, she received an angry call from her boss, Bryan Boughton. She described it at length in her deposition.
A few weeks after her coverage of the event, Ms. Fisher texted a colleague to complain that she had effectively been pulled off the air ever since:
Ms. Fisher then explained that she was quitting in disgust:
Three producers who oversee Sean Hannity’s 9 p.m. program — Robert Samuel, Ron Mitchell and Tiffany Fazio — texted one another, saying privately what a disaster the news conference had been. At the same time, they saw how popular the fraud narrative was with their audience.
Then Mr. Hannity and Ms. Fazio separately discussed the bind the network was in, and criticized Ms. Fisher for reporting accurately on claims of fraud.
And Ms. Scott was on it. She emailed Jay Wallace, the president of Fox News, to complain.
‘It’s a Great Story if It’s True’
Mr. Dobbs, whose program uncritically spread some of the most outlandish claims about Dominion, privately expressed doubts about the veracity of Ms. Powell’s accusations. He shared them with his producer, John Fawcett, who said he also wasn’t sure Ms. Powell could back up what she was saying, including about Brian Kemp, the governor of Georgia. Still, Mr. Dobbs continued to invite her on his show.
‘Our Audience Doesn’t Want to Hear About a Peaceful Transition’
Ms. Bartiromo’s “Sunday Morning Futures” was another consistent source of falsehoods about Dominion. She and her producer, Abby Grossberg, texted at length about the fraud allegations and how they resented the pressure they were getting from certain executives to shift course.
At one point, she and Ms. Grossberg discussed the interview that Ms. Bartiromo had just conducted with Mr. Trump. Ms. Bartiromo asked Ms. Grossberg if she should have also asked the president about his plans for a smooth transition.
Then the two make disparaging comments about the head of weekend programming at Fox, David Clark, who had been critical about the Trump interview. Mr. Clark has emerged as one of several Fox executives who started raising concerns about the network’s coverage of unfounded voter fraud allegations.
Jan. 6, 2021
Trump Phones Into Fox but Is Denied Airtime
Late in the afternoon on the day of the attack on the U.S. Capitol, with the halls only recently cleared of rioters, Mr. Trump called into Mr. Dobbs’s program and wanted to go on the air. Fox executives said no — their starkest action yet indicating how recklessly they believed the president was behaving.
Ms. Petterson, the president of Fox Business, home to Mr. Dobbs’s show, explained why in her deposition.
A month later, on Feb. 5, Fox canceled Mr. Dobbs’s show.
‘Pretty Much a Crime.’
After the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, even the most ardent Trump defenders like Mr. Hannity told their colleagues at Fox that they were appalled, the court filings show. Executives discussed yet another pivot for the network — this time firmly away from Mr. Trump.
Some of the most extensively documented disdain for Mr. Trump inside Fox came from the chairman himself, Rupert Murdoch. Repeatedly, the documents show, he expressed scorn for Mr. Trump and disgust at the direction that the president had led the Republican Party, which he said in his deposition was “destroying itself at the altar of Trump.” In one email on Inauguration Day, Mr. Murdoch wrote:
Mr. Trump has appeared on Fox far less frequently in the three years since. And Mr. Murdoch testified in his deposition that the two had not spoken since early 2020.