‘Insane, lying, complete nut’: How Fox News stars rejected Trump’s election conspiracies while network pushed them

Messages and testimony revealed in a voting machine company’s $1.6bn defamation lawsuit find top personalities and executives clashing over bogus claims while seething over brand ‘vandalism’ when reporters corrected them, Alex Woodward reports

Tuesday 28 February 2023 10:19 GMT

Top personalities, executives and producers at Fox News privately condemned “reckless” claims from election fraud conspiracy theorists they dismissed as “crazy” and “insane”.

But they were repeatedly invited on air on some of the most-watched cable news programmes in the country, where they amplified bogus statements about the 2020 presidential election and a voting machine company that has accused the network of defamation in a $1.6bn lawsuit.

A 192-page, partially redacted filing in Dominion Voting Systems’s lawsuit against Fox News reveals behind-the-scenes irritation with false claims made by Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, based on text messages, emails and depositions from programme hosts, producers and executives, including owner Rupert Murdoch.

Yet the network continued to broadcast claims from the former president and his allies, who led a spurious legal bid to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, fuelled by conspiracy theories and baseless claims that also energised competing right-wing media networks that threatened Fox viewership, according to messages in the filing.

One producer for Fox News personality Laura Ingraham at one point wrote to an executive that “this Dominion s*** is going to give me a f***ing aneurysm”.

Mr Trump’s false narrative of widespread voter fraud and manipulation of mail-in ballots – which he began before a single ballot was even cast in that year’s elections – created the pretext for his bogus claims that the election was rigged against him.

Testimony and messages from Fox News employees show that the newsroom was well aware of his false claims but publicly failed to explain them, while also failing to explain the processes for mail-in ballots and state laws that outlined procedures for sorting and tallying the votes.

Fearing ongoing viewer backlash after the network predicted Joe Biden would win the state of Arizona and, later, the 2020 presidential election, network hosts and executives sought to balance evidence-free claims about “irregularities” to keep viewers enthralled with conspiracy theories against their own private admissions that, in their words, was “nonsense” and “bull****.”

On 3 November, 2020, Election Day, Fox News host Bret Baier texted a friend that “there is NO evidence of fraud. None. Allegations – stories. Twitter. Bull****.”

Two days later, after host Lou Dobbs aired a segment based on a provably false tweet from Mr Trump about votes being switched to Mr Biden, Fox Business News President Lauren Petterson wrote in an email: “Jesus Christ. Does anyone do a f***ing simple Google search or read emails?”

On 5 November, as the network predicted that Mr Biden won the state of Arizona, a prediction made before other news networks, top personalities at Fox News “understood the threat to them personally,” according to the lawsuit.

“We worked really hard to build what we have. Those f*****s are destroying our credibility. It enrages me,” Tucker Carlson wrote to his producer Alex Pfeiffer on 5 November.

“It’s a hard needle to thread, but I really think many on ‘our side’ are being reckless demagogues right now,” Mr Pfeiffer responded.

“Of course they are,” Mr Carlson replied. “We’re not going to follow them. … What [Trump’s] good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us If we play it wrong.”

A statement from a spokesperson for Fox claims that “Dominion has 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.”

‘What is this? Oh man’

After Fox personality Maria Bartiromo posted unfounded allegations of voter manipulation on social media on 5 November, Mr Baier alerted executives about fact-checking such claims.

The following day, Rupert Murdoch told Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott it would be “very hard to credibly cry foul everywhere” with Mr Trump’s losses in several swing states.

He also wrote “if Trump becomes a sore loser we should watch Sean [Hannity] especially and others don’t sound the same.”

That message was forwarded to Meade Cooper, the executive vice president of the network’s primetime programming, which includes programmes hosted by Mr Hannity, Mr Carlson and Ms Piro, among others

Ms Cooper testified that, as of 6 November, 2020, “going on television to say that the election is being stolen … would not be based in fact at that point.”

But that same day, Sidney Powell appeared on Lou Dobbs Tonight to float a version of a bogus election manipulation conspiracy theory.

Her appearance prompted Mr Baier to immediately ask Fox President Jay Wallace: “What is this? Oh man.”

The following day, Ms Petterson and others at the network were made aware that 4chan users were calling on users to “spread” baseless election fraud claims and conspiracy theories. That same day, an editorial in Mr Murdoch’s The New York Post called on Mr Trump to “stop the ‘stolen election’ rhetoric” and get “Rudy Giuliani off TV”.

The network took some measures to prevent those claims from circulating in the days that followed, including canceling Ms Piro’s broadcast at one point. Producer Justin Wells said that “they took her off cuz she was being crazy”.

“Optics are bad. But she is crazy,” he said.

Tony Fratto, a former deputy White House press secretary under George W Bush and a communications consultant to Dominion, wrote directly to Fox executives on 16 November.

“[Dominion], as you know, has received a great deal of attention on [Fox News] and from the president. An enormous amount of misinformation actually, completely and verifiable wrong information is finding its way on-air,” he wrote. “I think this situation is crossing dangerous lines.”

That same night, Mr Fratto forwarded part of a transcript from Mr Dobbs’ broadcast.

“More f****ing lies, he wrote. “Honestly. He is a disgrace.”

‘Sidney Powell is lying by the way’

On 7 November, Fox News predicted that Mr Biden won the 2020 presidential election. Mr Murdoch and other Fox personalities began to see the writing on the wall.

“Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real,” Mr Carlson texted his producer. “An alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.”

On a broadcast of Sunday Morning Futures on 8 November, Fox News personality Maria Bartiromo hosted Sidney Powell.

“I know there were voting irregularities. Tell me about that,” Ms Bartiromo said on the network.

Ms Powell falsely said Dominion used “algorithms” as part of a “massive and coordinated effort to steal” the 2020 presidential election from Mr Trump.

Ms Bartiromo did not tell her viewers the source of those claims, which Ms Powell shared with her in an email one day earlier that even she said came from a person she described as a “wackadoodle”.

“Who am I? And how do I know all of this? … I’ve had the strangest dreams since I was a little girl … I was internally decapitated, and yet, I live. … The Wind tells me I’m a ghost, but I don’t believe it.”

That email, which was also shared with Lou Dobbs, alleged that Dominion was the “one common thread” in specious claims about “voting irregularities”.

In her deposition, Ms Bartiromo agreed that the email was “nonsense”.

Ms Powell had repeatedly claimed on the network and in other public appearances that votes were “flipped” and “dumped” and that the machines could “shift votes in real time”.

“We’ve identified mathematically the exact algorithm they used and planned to use from the beginning to modify the votes in this case to make sure Biden won,” she said.

Fox News, meanwhile, had received more than 3,863 emails from Dominion to correct those claims.

“In other words, Dominion did not simply deny the charges. It provided public evidence demonstrating those charges were false (and inherently improbable),” according to the lawsuit. “Fox’s hosts, producers, and executives had the facts in their inboxes.”

On 16 November, Mr Carlson told his producer Alex Pfeiffer that “Sidney Powell is lying. F****ing b****.”

Two days later, Mr Carlson told Ms Ingraham that “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. caught her. It’s insane.”

“Sidney is a complete nut,” Ms Ingraham said. “No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.”

“It’s unbelievably offensive to me,” Mr Carlson replied. “Our viewers are good people and they believe it.”

But on 19 November, Mr Carlson ended his broadcast by saying that “maybe Sidney Powell will come forward soon with details on exactly how this happened, and precisely who did it. We are certainly hopeful that she will.”

On 24 November, Ms Powell appeared on two programmes on the network, hosted by Mr Dobbs and Mr Hannity.

“The machine ran an algorithm that shaved votes from Trump and awarded them to Biden,” Ms Powell said in a series of false claims on Mr Hannity’s prime-time broadcast. “They used the machines to trash large batches of votes that should have been awarded to President Trump. And they used a machine to inject and add massive quantities of votes for Mr Biden.”

On 6 January, 2021, following a violent revolt at the US Capitol fuelled by the fraudulent election narrative, Mr Carlson wrote in a message to his producer that Mr Trump is “a demonic force, a destroyer. But he’s not going to destroy us.”

On January 26, Mr Carlson invited prolific election fraud conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell on his broadcast.

‘Get her fired’

While facing calls from within the company to “protect the brand” following outrage with the Arizona results and how to address “grieving” viewers, executives criticised truthful reporting and commentary and appeared to punish reporters for doing their job, according to the lawsuit.

While former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany amplified bogus claims of election fraud, Neil Cavuto told viewers that “she’s charging the other side as welcoming fraud and illegal voting” and that “unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue to show you this.”

Fox leadership – on “war footing” with competing Newsmax – said that his on-air remarks constituted a brand threat. Mr Carlson also complained separately of brand “vandalism”.

On 12 November, as Dominion claims began circulating on other networks and across social media, Laura Ingraham producer Tommy Firth texted an executive that “this dominion shit is going to give me a f****ing aneurysm”.

“As many times as I’ve told Laura bs, she sees s***posters and Trump tweeting about it,” he said.

That night, Mr Dobbs brought Mr Giuliani on his broadcast.

“The endgame to a four-and-a-half year-long effort to overthrow the president of the United States,” Mr Dobbs said on his programme.

Also that night, in a group message thread, Mr Carlson shared a tweet from now-former Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich “fact checking” one of Trump’s tweets alleging voter fraud, on which she correctly stated that “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

“Please get her fired,” Mr Carlson wrote. “Seriously … What the f****? actually shocked … It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Mr Hannity texted his team that he “just dropped a bomb”.

Ms Scott told Fox executives that Mr Hannity is “standing down on responding but not happy about this and doesn’t understand how this is allowed to happen from anyone in news.”

“[Ms Heinrich] has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted,” she added.

Ms Heinrich’s tweet was deleted.

On 19 November, a memo to executives said that “the lack of any meaningful editorial guidance” at Newsmax “may be a positive for them at least in the short term,” adding that that kind of “conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled [Fox News] viewer is looking for.”

“Do not ever give viewers a reason to turn us off,” Fox executive Ron Mitchell wrote. “Every topic and guest must perform … ‘No unforced errors’ in content – example: Abruptly turning away from aTrump campaign press conference.”

The next day, while the network played the entirety of Mr Giuliani’s post-election press conference, then-White House correspondent Kristin Fisher fact checked claims from Ms Powell and Mr Giuliani.

She said that her boss Bryan Boughton immediately called her to tell her that “higher-ups at Fox News were also unhappy” and that she “needed to do a better job of – this is a quote – ‘respecting our audience.’”

“Punished for doing my job,” she texted after the call.

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