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Records in Fox libel case show pressure on reporters


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

It was the news division of his own network.

“They are pathetic,” Carlson wrote.

“THEY ARE NOT SMART,” Ingraham emphasized.

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

The November 13, 2020 conversation was included among thousands of pages of recently released documents related to Dominion Voting Systems. $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox for his post-election reporting. Like much of what has been uncovered, the exchange may ultimately have little to do with whether Fox will be convicted of defamation.

Instead, the material offers insight into how Fox’s stars and leadership responded at a time of great anxiety and how giving its audience what they wanted to hear took precedence over reporting uncomfortable truths.

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

However, while the news side of Fox has seen the prominent defections of pastor smith and Chris Wallace in recent years, it still employs many respected journalists, including Jennifer Griffin, Greg Palkot, John Roberts, Shannon Bream, Bryan Llenas, Jacqui Heinrich, and Chad Pergram.

They are left wondering if the myriad of recent stories about Fox, from the Dominion documents and from Carlson’s use of US Capitol security video. Create your own narrative of the January 6, 2021, attack — will make your job more difficult. Will fewer people want to work with them because of the dominance of Fox’s opinion side?

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

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

The 2020 post-election period offered a tough test. The network’s election night statement that Joe Biden had won Arizona, ahead of any other news organization, angered its viewers. Many sympathized with the former president Trump’s claims significant voter fraud even if, then as now, there has been no evidence of that.

After covering a Nov. 19 press conference with Trump’s lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, then-Fox reporter Kristin Fisher said her boss in Washington, Bryan Boughton, called to say he was unhappy with her reporting. She said she was told she needed to do a better job to “respect our audience,” according to documents released in the case.

“I thought I was respecting our audience by telling them the truth,” Fisher, now with CNN, testified in a statement on the Dominion case.

He later claimed that his airtime was taken away in retaliation.

Heinrich drew the ire of Fox opinion hosts by tweeting a fact check on some of Trump’s claims. In a text, Carlson profanely said that she should be fired; Fox said that she was later promoted to White House correspondent.

“He has a lot of nerve to do this,” Fox publicity chief Irena Briganti said in an internal memo released among court documents, “and if this gets caught, viewers will be even more upset. Your job is to inform, not mock the President of the United States.”

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

“Journalists need to be careful how they cover this rally,” Murdoch said. “So far, some of the side comments have been slightly anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this big 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 senior Fox Corp. executive, Raj Shah, said in a memo that “bold, clear and decisive action is needed for us to begin to win back the trust we are losing with our core audience.”

Dominion argues, as part of its lawsuit, that nervousness about what their viewers wanted led Fox to air allegations that the voting machine company was complicit in fraud that hurt Trump, despite the fact that many the people of the network did not believe them. In his own statement, Fox founder Rupert Murdoch agreed that the choice had been fair and “was not stolen.”

Fox counters that it was airing newsworthy charges made by the president and his supporters.

Concern over the backlash from Arizona spilled over into the news division, according to court documents. Fox News host Bret Baier said defending the call made him uncomfortable and suggested he instead award the state to Trump. Roberts also sent a memo in which he said he had been receiving “a lot of criticism” over the decision.

In 2012, Fox stood his ground behind his decision-making desk when network commentator and veteran Republican aide Karl Rove questioned his correct decision that Barack Obama had won Ohio, essentially securing him re-election against Republican Mitt Romney.

In a memorable television moment, Megyn Kelly marched down the aisle to hear the decision table explain why the call was made.

Eight years later, signs of shyness appeared at Fox in the days after his Arizona call-up. 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 key Washington executives on the Arizona election call should be fired, saying it would send a “great message” to Trump allies. The executives, Bill Sammon and Chris Stirewalt, they lost their jobs two months later.

A Fox spokeswoman characterized the discussions about the Arizona call as part of a typical autopsy that occurs after big news stories. Despite the “intense scrutiny,” Fox complied with her call. Even though Sammon and Stirewalt were ousted, Fox kept consultant Arnon Mishkin, who headed his decision-making table, for the 2024 election.

Scott, who reports to corporate bosses, noted in her statement that she considered herself a television producer.

“I don’t consider myself a journalist,” said the head of Fox News Media. “I consider myself a television executive. I hire journalists. I hire news people.”

The former head of Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes, was not a journalist either: his background was in politics. However, to some longtime Fox watchers, Ailes recognized that Fox’s opinion side was getting stronger from a solid news side, and he maintained stronger barriers between the two.

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

To date, no one in Fox management has spoken about the Dominion case to its reporters, leaving some wondering if there is anyone defending them, said a Fox reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional retaliation.

In a brief filed Friday, Fox said much of the evidence Dominion presented was internal communications, “often inflammatory and headline-grabbing, but irrelevant to any disputed issue.”

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

However, the fallout from the Dominion case leaves open the question of whether Fox journalists will be able to do their jobs without the restrictions of other forces, 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 a clear line is drawn between it and the rest of Fox,” Jamieson said.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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