The Corruption at Fox News Is Worse Than You Assumed

Fox News host Tucker Carlson laughs it up with Donald Trump at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on July 31, 2022.Seth Wenig/AP

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.Editor’s note: The below article first appeared in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land. The newsletter is written by David twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories about politics and media; his unvarnished take on the events of the day; film, book, television, podcast, and music recommendations; interactive audience features; and more. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here. Please check it out. And please also check out David’s new New York Times bestseller: American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy.
Isn’t it comforting to have your worst suspicions confirmed?
Last week, the release of a legal filing in Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation case against Fox News disclosed text messages, emails, and deposition testimony of Fox hosts and executives that provided a rare look at the inner workings of a propaganda outfit that masquerades as a news network. They revealed that Fox and its on-air personalities relentlessly validated and amplified Donald Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election, even though they knew his claim of a stolen election was utter bullshit. The network, which has billed itself as “fair and balanced,” endorsed and advanced Trump’s dangerous disinformation campaign and actively aided his effort to subvert American democracy. The result? A violent attempt at insurrection at the US Capitol.
By now, you may have read about the specific examples cited in the legal document. Fox’s top hosts and network executives were texting each other and noting that the election conspiracy theories—especially the crap pushed by lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani about Dominion supposedly rigging its voting machines to deny Trump victory—were bogus. Undeterred, Fox kept promoting this nonsense. When a Fox reporter fact-checked these notions and found them baseless, host Tucker Carlson texted host Sean Hannity, “Please get her fired. 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.” When then–White House correspondent Kristin Fisher vetted the absurd claims made by Powell and Giuliani, she received a call from her boss who told her the “higher-ups at Fox News were also unhappy with it” and Fisher “needed to do a better job of respecting our audience.”
According to the legal filing, the most bonkers of Fox hosts—Maria Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs, and Jeanine Pirro—provided a platform for the most deranged allegations, even when they had good reason to know they were unfounded. Bartiromo hosted Powell and gave credence to her cockamamie charges after Powell had sent her a bizarre email from a supposed source for the Dominion allegations who claimed, “I was internally decapitated, and yet, I live….The Wind tells me I’m a ghost, but I don’t believe it.”
Carlson repeatedly told his Fox colleagues that Trump was dangerous, suggesting the network could not honestly and accurately cover his election lies without risking terrible consequences—not for democracy but for Fox. “What [Trump]’s good at is destroying things,” he said in one message. “He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.” In a text sent to his producer late on January 6, 2021, Carlson called Trump “a demonic force, a destroyer.” Did he ever share this view with his audience? Of course not. And even though he privately denigrated the 2020 election conspiracy theories as rubbish, Carlson still had Mike Lindell, the My Pillow guy, on his show and handed him a platform to spout his usual crackpot accusations about Dominion conspiring with the Deep State and other nefarious entities to falsify the vote count in Joe Biden’s favor.
No other self-proclaimed news organization has ever been so fully discredited as Fox has been with this one legal brief. (You should read the document.) This is not the case of one reporter, one editor, or one story going off the rails. This is an indictment of an entire outfit. The full barrel of apples is rotten to the core. What this filing demonstrates is that the Fox universe is racked with corruption, greed, fear, irrationality, cynicism, and ignorance—from top to bottom. That ought to be the ultimate takeaway.
Let’s start at the top with Rupert Murdoch, the hands-on, 91-year-old ruler of this evil empire. The filing notes that Murdoch and his son Lachlan Murdoch were regular participants in the twice-daily editorial meetings for the network during the 2020 postelection period. One email Murdoch sent Suzanne Scott, the Fox CEO, on November 16, indicates that he helped shape the network’s strategy for covering Trump’s falsehoods. Responding to a Wall Street Journal article about Newsmax, a far-right website that was leaning hard into election conspiracy claptrap and that Fox execs eyed warily as competition, he wrote, “These people should be watched, if skeptically. Trump will concede eventually and we should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can. We don’t want to antagonize Trump further, but Giuliani taken with a large grain of salt. Everything at stake here.” Helping any way we can. For Murdoch that was a remit that did not call for honest and straightforward reporting.
Murdoch comes across as a real-life version of Succession’s Logan Roy, fully in charge of Fox, fully dominating the corporate hierarchy, and fully capable of stopping its coverage of what he privately called “really crazy stuff.” According to the filing, Murdoch at one point asked Scott whether it was “unarguable that high-profile Fox voices fed the story that the election was stolen and that January 6 [was] an important chance to have the results overturned.” Fox executives responded with 50 examples of such instances when it did precisely that. Yet Murdoch, as far as we know, never gave the order to knock off promoting Trump’s garbage. The network continued to push this unfounded paranoia. Why? The irrational ignorance of its viewers—and the network’s money-grubbing.
As I noted in my recent book, American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, for seven decades the GOP has been both exploiting and encouraging the grievances, resentments, and fears of its conservative base. Fox has been doing the same for the past 26 years. It has presented a steady stream of paranoia and conspiracy theories to its audience, constantly declaring that the Democrats and the left are out to destroy America with death panels, a war on Christmas, CRT, Antifa, open borders, gay rights, the replacement of white people, climate change actions, a secret-socialist-Muslim president, and anything else that will inspire rage and fear. No surprise, the network’s viewers, with their extreme biases confirmed by Fox, believed all this bunk and craved more. Fox had long catered to viewers who lived in an alternative and frightening reality—Joe Biden is a pedophile commie!!!—and recklessly reinforced their fact-free anxieties. After Trump was declared the loser and falsely insisted the election had been rigged against him, these viewers, assuming the worst of the God-hating and USA-despising libs, fully accepted his lies and expected the network to bolster them and lead the charge.
Just as the GOP had become hostage to a base that had been radicalized over the years—thanks to the divisive and demagogic politicking of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and then Trump—Fox now was dependent upon a rabid and Trumpified audience for ratings and, thus, revenue. Its host and personalities feared the wrath of Fox viewers who had been conditioned by years of Fox’s Manichaean and skewed coverage to yearn for even bloodier red meat and who now demanded the network champion the Big Lie. They were enraged that Fox on election night called Arizona for Biden and then days later declared Biden the ultimate victor. And that ire, the Fox team worried, could lead these viewers to switch off Fox and head toward Newsmax.
The filing is filled with texts and emails between Fox executives and hosts emphasizing they had to kowtow to their incensed viewers. Carlson told Scott directly, “I’ve never seen a reaction like this, to any media company. Kills me to watch it.” In an exchange with Lachlan Murdoch, Scott stated that in order to maintain the “trust” of viewers, the network had to let them know “we hear them and respect them.” Which meant play to the Trump-fueled, unfounded belief that the election was crooked. In another message to another Fox exec, she termed calling Arizona for Biden a failure “to protect the brand.” In a different message, Scott noted, “The audience feels like we crapped on [them] and we have damaged their trust and belief in us…We can fix this but we cannot smirk at our viewers any longer.” Put simply, Fox could not tell the audience the truth. Their viewers could not handle it.
Carlson realized this. After Fox declared Biden the winner, he texted his producer: “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real…an alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.”
Hannity viewed the situation the way a politician—not a journalist—would. He told fellow host Steve Doocy that the network was facing a “major backlash” from the audience, adding, “You don’t piss off the base.” He texted Carlson and Ingraham, “The network is being rejected.” Carlson responded, “I’ve heard from angry viewers every hour of the day all weekend, including at dinner tonight,” to which Hannity replied, “Same same same. Never before has this ever happened.”
Carlson, Hannity, Ingraham, and the rest of the Fox crew had trained their viewers to believe the worst of the Democrats and accept the flood of lies from Trump and his comrades on the right. Now they couldn’t flip the switch. And they worried about their livelihoods: If they told their viewers the truth—there was no significant election fraud; the conspiracy theorists were hurling hogwash—their audience would turn to Newsmax and the network would suffer financially. So, as Dominion’s lawyers claim in this brief, Fox hosts and execs spoonfed their viewers more lies and falsehoods, knowing this was all one big con.
This cynical hustle was in sync with Trump’s brazen attempt to torpedo the US Constitution and prevent the peaceful transfer of power. Days after the election, Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser, sent a message to Bartiromo: “71 million voters will never accept Biden. This process is to destroy his presidency before it even starts; IF it even starts…We either close on Trump’s victory or del[e]gitimize Biden….THE PLAN.” Bannon was not passing information to a journalist looking to report on what the Trump crowd was plotting. This was a note shared with a partner who Bannon expected to join the Trump scheme to sabotage democracy. Given the evidence cited in this filing, Bannon was right to expect this.
To some, it is no big shock to discover that Fox is driven to inflame not inform its audience. But if there were ever any debate over that, this document settles the matter. For financial profit, Fox has for years radicalized its viewers and reaffirmed their most profound apprehensions and most malevolent biases. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Fox had to pander to what they had created or risk losing audience share. It chose the latter, opting for demagoguery over democracy to make a buck.
With these revelations, Fox ought to be permanently branded a fraud. Yet that won’t happen on the right. It remains too useful for Republicans and still has a hold on the party’s far-right and extremist base (which itself has a hold on Fox). On Monday, Axios reported that House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has given Carlson exclusive access to 41,000 hours of Capitol surveillance footage from the January 6 riot. McCarthy, who once promised more accountability in Congress, is handing this booty only to a broadcaster who promoted the idea that the January 6 assault was a false flag operation mounted by the Deep State and who has been revealed in this filing as a scheming phony who knowingly promotes lies for profit.
In its brief, Dominion accurately declares: “Broadcasters make choices about what to air. While that platform comes with tremendous power, it also carries an obligation to tell the truth. Fox…decided to use its megaphone to spread falsehoods. It deceived millions of people.” Its coverage of the 2020 election was no anomaly. This episode illuminates the fundamental nature of Fox. Defamation lawsuits are often threats to reporters and journalism overall. But in the Dominion case against Fox, Murdoch’s company is being exposed for what it is: a disinformation-for-profit noise machine controlled by a vile billionaire and operated by a pack of jackals who distort and pervert the national discourse. Whatever happens with this case, that’s a win for the truth.