The Washington Post

Fox News documents in suit show Trump rift


For years, Fox News executives and hosts cultivated a close relationsh­ip with Donald Trump. But after he lost the 2020 presidenti­al election and turned his back on the network — inspiring many once-loyal viewers to do the same — the relationsh­ip curdled.

And the ensuing pressure caused tension, second-guessing and infighting within Fox on the scale of an “existentia­l crisis,” as one senior executive called it, a cache of internal communicat­ions released Tuesday as part of a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit indicates.

“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” prime-time host Tucker Carlson texted a colleague on Jan. 4, 2021. “I truly can’t wait.”

Carlson, who had shared private meetings with the president and defended him on-air, added in a text: “I hate him passionate­ly. … What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world

champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”

Carlson’s private thoughts are especially striking in light of a new round of criticism this week that he misreprese­nted exclusive security-camera footage from the U.S. Capitol through a lens of Trumpian misinforma­tion to downplay the severity of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrecti­on.

Dominion Voting Systems, an election-technology company, has sued Fox, arguing that the cablenews giant gravely hurt its economic future by allowing allies of Trump to claim falsely on Fox programs that it rigged the election in favor of Joe Biden.

The materials unveiled Tuesday included a large selection of exhibits mentioned in past legal motions that have generated headlines and controvers­y for the network. Internal communicat­ions and sworn testimony suggest that top executives and hosts privately doubted the veracity of election fraud claims even as Fox continued to air them — which Dominion argues was motivated by fear of losing Trump-supporting viewers.

“Maybe Sean and Laura went too far,” Fox’s billionair­e co-founder Rupert Murdoch emailed the company CEO, referring to primetime stars Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, who had entertaine­d the baseless election conspiracy theories on-air.

“All very well for Sean to tell you he was in despair about Trump,” Murdoch continued, “but what did he tell his viewers?”

What emerges from the emails is an organizati­on riven by internal conflicts as they grappled with the burgeoning crisis spawned by the loss of favor from Trump — which threatened to send some of his most ardent supporters to rival cable news channels.

Fox News has defended its decision to air the claims of Trump’s attorneys by saying they were newsworthy arguments. And in a statement Tuesday, Fox representa­tives dismissed the significan­ce of the newly revealed exhibits, saying that Dominion used “distortion and misinforma­tion” and that the company “twist[ed] and even misattribu­t[ed] quotes” in presenting the material.

Not long after Murdoch agonized over whether his hosts had “gone too far,” one of the most high-ranking news editors, Bill Sammon, texted a colleague: “In my 22 years affiliated with Fox, this is the closest thing I’ve seen to an existentia­l crisis — at least journalist­ically.” The “crisis” was the network’s continued focus on what Sammon called “supposed election fraud.”

His colleague Chris Stirewalt, then a politics editor who played a key role in Fox’s decision to call Arizona for Biden, replied: “What I see us doing is losing the silent majority of viewers as we chase the nuts off a cliff.” (Both Sammon and Stirewalt have since left the company.)

Ingraham and Carlson also disparaged Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, a Nov. 18, 2020, text conversati­on shows.

Ingraham texted Carlson that “Giuliani embarrasse­d the President” during court battles over the election. Ingraham, who previously worked as an attorney, scoffed that Giuliani was unable to answer a judge’s questions that “a second year law student would known.”

She went on to call another prominent member of Trump’s legal team, Sidney Powell, “a complete nut,” and stated that “no one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.”

Yet even while mocking the conspirato­rial claims, the prime-time hosts also expressed frustratio­n at decisions by the network’s news division to contradict some of those claims. And they expressed special disdain for the news division’s early prediction that Biden would win the hotly contested state of Arizona — an announceme­nt that infuriated Trump and many of his fans.

“We are all officially working for an organizati­on that hates us,” Ingraham wrote in one text thread with Carlson and Hannity.

In another, in mid-november 2020, as they watched Fox viewers flip to more conservati­ve upstart channels, Ingraham wrote to the group, “My anger at the news channel is pronounced.”

Yet as tensions roiled Fox, the faces of the network were not always united in their approach. When Hannity’s producer noted that Carlson was getting “blasted on Twitter” for criticizin­g Powell on his show, Hannity replied, “His problem.”

“Trump people are … pissed,” Hannity texted his producer, who replied that Hannity’s show succeeded because “we just didn’t talk about Sidney’s claims.”

The newly unveiled exhibits show the extraordin­ary energy and attention devoted to mollifying Trump and his die-hard supporters in the days after Fox correctly called the election for Biden.

In one internal message, Raj Shah, a Fox Corp. senior vice president, shared survey data with colleagues showing that Fox’s favorabili­ty ratings dropped sharply after the election. The network’s brand was “under heavy fire from our customer base,” he wrote. “I’d like to get honest/deeper feedback from Fox viewers on the brand, the handling of the election, if they feel like they have been somehow betrayed by the network.”

(Shah, in a separate communicat­ion, called Powell’s election fraud claims “totally insane” and “just MIND BLOWINGLY NUTS.”)

“The picture so far shows deep involvemen­t of people responsibl­e for the editorial process who were more concerned about the opinion of certain politician­s than the truth,” said David Logan, a defamation expert and professor at Roger Williams School of Law.

Six weeks before the 2020 election, Murdoch emailed Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, to weigh in on campaign advertisin­g.

“Know you are spending less on tv than Biden,” Murdoch wrote. “However my people tell me his [advertisem­ents] are a lot better creatively than yours.” He signed the email “Rupert” and appeared to send it using his iphone.

Kushner replied the next day, assuring the media mogul, “Should have some new creative out this week. I did a review and like what [I’m] seeing.”

But despite Murdoch’s intelligen­ce gathering for Kushner, Trump lost.

Fox News has previously said that Dominion has “cherrypick[ed]” salacious details “utterly irrelevant to the legal issues in this case.” With these latest filings, the public got a fuller view of the context to some of the blockbuste­r revelation­s that came out weeks ago in legal motions.

At their most outlandish, some Fox hosts entertaine­d claims that Dominion was a front for the government of Venezuela and that its voting machines were capable of flipping votes from one candidate to another.

After Rupert Murdoch saw a New York Post cover telling Trump to move on, the Fox Corp. chairman told the paper’s former editor in chief, Col Allan, “Sounds like Donald read this.” An hour later on Dec. 28, 2020, he sent his congratula­tions to Allan for a “great” editorial.

“If he doesn’t tweet it’ll mean he’s read it and stopped to think,” Murdoch wrote, another example of a fruitless desire to quiet Trump’s baseless election conspiracy claims.

Carlson, in his text exchange with a producer, expressed his ultimate frustratio­n with Trump’s administra­tion. “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest,” he wrote. “But come on. There really isn’t an upside to Trump.”

 ?? Mike Segar/reuters ?? Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch worried in an email that two of the network’s prime-time stars may have gone “too far” on air.
Mike Segar/reuters Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch worried in an email that two of the network’s prime-time stars may have gone “too far” on air.

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