Fox's 2020 split screen revealed

Last updated on February 17, 2023

The most powerful figures at Fox News privately raised grave doubts about the election conspiracy theories they repeatedly amplified in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election, according to a Thursday court filing in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit over the network’s coverage.

Internal communications revealed by Dominion Voting Systems paint a stark and damning picture — a split-screen between the false and conspiratorial claims beamed to Fox viewers about rigged Dominion voting machines, and the private, candid opinions of the network’s hosts and executives, who repeatedly admitted to each other that the claims were utter, unsourced garbage.

“From the top down, Fox knew,” the company argues.

Dominion’s nearly-200-page filing not only lays out a tale of rank hypocrisy, but it weaves a broader narrative about what drove the campaign of disinformation — documenting the panic inside the network’s ranks after conservative discontent over its early (and accurate) call of Arizona for Joe Biden translated into a viewership boom for its less scrupulous competitor, Newsmax, as an aggrieved Donald Trump lashed out at Fox.

“He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong,” primetime host Tucker Carlson texted his producer just two days after the election — one of dozens of frank admissions aired by Dominion.

And so fears of lost viewers and lost profits led Fox’s most powerful figures to indulge baseless claims of conspiracy and fraud and, in some cases, move to sideline news reporters who took basic steps to fact-check claims made by the likes of pro-Trump attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani on the network’s airwaves.

In a series of text messages, Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham lambasted Powell and Giuliani for peddling conspiratorial goods without evidence. “Sidney Powell is lying. Fucking bitch,” Carlson wrote to Ingraham on Nov. 18. “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy,” Ingraham responded.

Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch called the idea that the election was stolen “really crazy stuff.” Shortly after the election, his top execs circulated a New York Post piece urging Trump to “stop the ’stolen election’ rhetoric” and “get Rudy Giuliani off TV.” They also openly fretted about whether Hannity, Ingraham and Carlson would indulge the conspiracy theories on their shows.

Emails and texts in the filing suggest that Fox’s top executives and stars were less worried about factual accuracy than about ratings crashing after viewers who bought into Trump’s election lies began to seek out different channels that would support their biases.

While one Fox exec called Newsmax’s ratings surge “troubling” and said the channel trafficked in an “alternative universe,” they also argued that the trend “can’t be ignored.” Another said the message had been sent out internally that the network was now on “war footing.”

According to the filing, Fox — still in hot water with Trump supporters for calling Arizona for Biden — did a quick about-face to protect its brand, leaving journalists at the network who reported the truth about the election in the crosshairs:

  • On Nov. 9, 2020, host Neil Cavuto cut away from White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany as she made unsubstantiated claims of a stolen election. “Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue to show you this,” Cavuto said on the air. For this, Fox News Senior VP (and former Trump White House press aide) Raj Shah labeled Cavuto a “brand threat” in a message to top corporate brass.
  • Hannity and Carlson tried to get Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich fired for fact-checking a Trump tweet about Dominion and noting that there was no evidence of votes being destroyed. “Please get her fired. Seriously… What the fuck?” Carlson texted Ingraham and Hannity on Nov. 12, 2020. “It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.” Hannity exploded on top execs, including one who panicked and wrote that Heinrich “has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted” with Fox. (CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported last night that Heinrich was “blindsided” by this disclosure.)
  • On Nov. 19, 2020, after Fox broadcasted the now-infamous Giuliani and Powell press conference about Dominion, then-White House correspondent Kristen Fisher got in trouble for fact-checking their bogus claims. Per the filing, “Fisher received a call from her boss, Bryan Boughton, immediately after in which he emphasized that higher-ups at Fox News were also unhappy with it, and that Fisher needed to do a better job of, this is a quote, respecting our audience.”

In one of the most bizarre bits, the filing reveals that Powell’s Dominion voting conspiracy came in part from an email Powell received from a tipster who claimed that former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was secretly murdered while on a human-hunting expedition — and who claimed to be “internally decapitated” (“The Wind tells me I’m a ghost, but I don’t believe it,” the tipster wrote in the email).
Fox host Maria Bartiromo, who agreed to have Powell on her show after reading this email, never told viewers about the source of Powell’s claim. As Fox’s then-managing editor in Washington Bill Sammon said of the network’s coverage at the time: “It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things.”

It all amounts to what Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple calls “the most piercing look at the internal goings-on at Fox News in its quarter-century history.” But will Dominion, which is seeking $1.6 billion from a company that the NYT says has about $4 billion cash on hand, win the suit?

Defamation cases have a high bar, and Dominion will have to prove “actual malice” — that the network peddled information it knew was erroneous, or was “reckless” in not doing its homework to ensure it was accurate.

In a statement, Fox News did not directly dispute any of the facts aired in Dominion’s filing, but said the company “mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context, and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law.”

A spokesperson also said Dominion “refused to agree to allow FOX to make its response to that motion public,” and that “the reason for Dominion’s refusal will be clear when the public response is finally released on February 27.”