Fox defamation case records show pressure on reporters

It wasn’t critics, political enemies or their bosses that united Fox News stars Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham as they gathered via text message for a grievance session shortly after the 2020 election.

It was the news department of her own station.

“You are pathetic,” Carlson wrote.

“YOU ARE NOT SMART,” Ingraham pointed out.

“What news have you shared in the last four years?” asked Hannity.

The November 13, 2020 conversation was included in thousands of pages of recently released documents related to Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox over its post-election reporting. Ultimately, like much of what has been uncovered, the exchange may have little bearing on Fox being found guilty of defamation.

Instead, the footage offers a glimpse of how Fox’s stars and leadership responded at a time of great anxiety, and how giving audiences what they wanted to hear rather than reporting inconvenient truths took precedence.

The revelations have given a boost to critics who say Fox News Channel should be viewed as a propaganda network rather than a news outlet.

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

You have to wonder if the wealth of recent stories about Fox – from the Dominion documents and from Carlson’s use of US Capitol security video to create his own narrative of the Jan. 6, 2021 attack – will complicate their job. Because of Fox’s Opinion Page dominance, will fewer people want to work with them?

Fox says it has increased its investment in journalism by more than 50% under Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott and usually leads its rivals in ratings on big breaking news.

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

The time after the election in 2020 offered a tough test. The network’s election night declaration that Joe Biden had won ahead of all other news organizations in Arizona infuriated its viewers. Many sympathized with former President Donald Trump’s allegations of significant voter fraud, even though there was no evidence then, as now.

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

“I felt I was respecting our audience by telling them the truth,” Fisher, who now works at CNN, said in a statement on the Dominion case.

She later claimed that the airtime was taken away from her in retaliation.

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

“She has serious nerve to do this,” Fox PR chief Irena Briganti said in an internal memo released in the court filings, “and when this is taken up, viewers will be even more disgusted.” Your job is to report, not mock the President of the United States.”

During a text call Nov. 14, Scott and Lachlan Murdoch, the chairman and CEO of Fox Corp., discussed how a Trump rally should be covered on the network.

“News people have to be careful how they cover this rally,” Murdoch said. “So far, some of the side commentary has been slightly anti, and it shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this grand celebration of the President.”

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

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

Dominion argues in its lawsuit that nervousness about what its viewers wanted prompted Fox to spread claims that the voting machine company was involved in fraud that hurt Trump, even though many people on the network didn’t believe them. In his own testimony, Fox founder Rupert Murdoch agreed the election was fair and “not stolen”.

Fox countered that it had spread newsworthy allegations from the President and his supporters.

According to court documents, concerns about the backlash in Arizona spread to the news department. Fox News host Bret Baier said he was uncomfortable defending the call and suggested handing the state to Trump instead. Roberts also sent a memo saying he got “great heat” over the decision.

In 2012, Fox stood strong behind his decision board when network commentator and veteran GOP adviser Karl Rove questioned his correct appeal, which Barack Obama had won in Ohio, essentially assuring him re-election against Republican Mitt Romney.

In one memorable TV moment, Megyn Kelly marched down the hall to hear the decision board’s explanation of the call.

Eight years later, Fox showed signs of shyness in the days following his call in Arizona. When other news organizations finally declared Biden president-elect on 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 executives critical to the Arizona race call should be fired, saying it would send a “big message” to Trump allies. Executives, Bill Sammon and Chris Stirewalt, lost their jobs two months later.

A Fox spokeswoman described the discussions about the Arizona call as part of a typical autopsy that follows major news events. Despite “intense scrutiny,” Fox stuck to his claim. Despite Sammon and Stirewalt being forced out of office, Fox retained advisor Arnon Mishkin, who has headed its decision-making office, for the 2024 election.

Scott, who answers to company bosses, noted in her statement 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 manager. I hire journalists. I’m hiring news people.”

Longtime Fox News Channel boss Roger Ailes wasn’t a journalist either — his background was politics. For some longtime Fox watchers, however, Ailes recognized that Fox’s opinion side was empowered by a solid news site, and he maintained stronger barriers between the two.

Some of the information released in recent weeks shows how in many ways Fox has become less of an agenda-setter and more a medium that follows its audience, said Nicole Hemmer, a professor at Vanderbilt University and author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who”. Remake of American politics in the 1990s.”

To date, no one in Fox management has spoken to its journalists about the Dominion case, leading some to wonder if anyone is standing up for them, said a Fox journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation.

“Fox News still does good journalism today,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She cited the transition of “Fox News Sunday” from Wallace to Bream.

However, the aftermath of the Dominion case leaves open the question of whether Fox journalists are allowed to do their work unhindered by other forces, she said.

“It would be helpful for Fox News at this point to make a clear statement that the news department has complete and complete autonomy and that a clear boundary is drawn 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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