Records in the Fox defamation case show pressure on reporters

NEW YORK (AP) — It wasn’t critics, political enemies or their bosses who joined Fox News stars Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham when they met via text message for a critique session shortly after the election. of 2020.

It was his own network’s news division.

“They are pathetic,” Carlson wrote.

“They are NOT smart,” Ingraham emphasized.

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

On November 13, 2020, the conversation was included among thousands of pages of recently released documents related to the $1.6 billion Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit. against Fox for its post-election reporting. Like most of what has been discovered, the exchange ultimately may have little impact on whether Fox will be found guilty of libel.

Instead, the material offers insight into how the stars and management of Fox responded at a time of high anxiety and how giving their 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 Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace in recent years, it has consistently employed many respected journalists – such as Jennifer Griffin, Greg Palkot, John Roberts, Shannon Bream, Bryan Llenas, Jacqui Heinrich and Chad Pergram.

They are left wondering if the series of recent stories on Fox – from the Dominion documents and from Carlson’s use of US Capitol security video to create his own narrative. of the attack on January 6, 2021 – will make his 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, CEO of Fox News Media, and usually leads its rivals in ratings during big news stories.

“We are incredibly proud of our team of reporters who continue to deliver 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 post-election period in 2020 offers a severe test. The statement of the night of the election of the network that Joe Biden had won in Arizona, ahead of any other news organization, infuriating its viewers. Many are sympathetic to the claims of former President Donald Trump of significant voter fraud even if, then as now, there was no evidence of that

After she covered a Nov. 19 news conference with Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, Fox reporter Kristin Fisher said her boss in Washington, Bryan Boughton, called to say she was unhappy with his report. She said she was told she needed to do a better job of “respecting our audience,” according to documents released in the case.

“I believed I respected our public by telling the truth,” Fisher, who now works at CNN, testified in a deposition about the Dominion case.

He later claimed that airtime had been taken away from him in retaliation.

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

“It’s a serious move to do this,” Fox advertising chief Irena Briganti said in an internal memo released among court documents, “and if it’s repeated, viewers will be more upset. Their job is to report, not to mock the president of the United States.”

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

“The news guys have to be careful how they cover this rally,” Murdoch said. “Until now some of the side comments have been slightly anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this great 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 regain the trust we are losing with our core audience.”

Dominion claims, as part of its lawsuit, that it was nervous about what its viewers wanted led Fox to allegations that the voting machine company was complicit in a fraud that hurt Trump, even though many people at the network didn’t believe it.. In his own deposition, Fox founder Rupert Murdoch agreed that the election had been fair and “it was not stolen.”

Fox disputes that it aired news allegations made by the president and his followers.

Concern over Arizona’s reaction spread to the news division, according to court documents. Fox News anchor Bret Baier said the call’s defense made him uncomfortable and suggested instead granting the state to Trump. Roberts also sent a memo saying he had “great grief” over the decision.

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

In a memorable moment of television, Megyn Kelly walked into the hall to listen to the explanation of the desk of the decision why the call was made.

Eight years later, signs of shyness at Fox appeared in the days after his call to Arizona. When other news organizations finally declared Biden the 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 key to calling the Arizona race should be fired, saying it would send a “big message” to Trump’s allies. . The executives, Bill Sammon and Chris Stirewalt, lost his job two months later.

A Fox spokeswoman characterized the discussions about the Arizona call as part of a typical postmortem that happens after big news events. Despite “intense scrutiny,” Fox stood by his call. Although Sammon and Stirewalt were forced out, Fox retained consultant Arnon Mishkin, who ran its decision desk, for the 2024 election.

Scott, responsible for corporate employers, noted in his deposition that he considers himself a television producer.

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

The head of the longtime Fox News Channel, Roger Ailes, was not even a journalist – his background was in politics. To some longtime Fox watchers, however, Ailes acknowledged that Fox’s opinion side drew strength from a solid news side, and he looked at 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-setter than an outlet that follows its audience, said Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University professor and author of “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 to wonder if anyone is defending them, said a Fox reporter, who spoke on condition of anonymity. anonymous for fear of professional retribution.

In a brief filed Friday, Fox said many of the exhibits Dominion introduced were internal communications, “often inflammatory and inflammatory, but irrelevant to any issue in dispute.”

“There’s a lot of great journalism going on at Fox News today,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Center for Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. She cited the transition of “Fox News Sunday” from Wallace to Bream.

The fallout of the Dominion case, however, leaves open the question of whether Fox reporters will be allowed to do their work unfettered by other forces, he said.

“It would be helpful for Fox News, at this point, to make a clear statement that the news division has complete and total autonomy and that a clear line 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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