The Internal Decapitation of Fox News

The Internal Decapitation of Fox News

Documents from Dominion Voting Systems’s lawsuit against Fox show the network’s awareness of the flimsiness of its stolen-election narrative.

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I have been internally decapitated, and, yet, I live…. The Wind tells me I’m a ghost, but I don’t believe it.” Thus speaks the oracle at the center of the great conspiracy theory that nearly toppled the American republic. The writer was an unnamed correspondent of Sidney Powell, the most visible—and most unhinged—promoter of the lie that the 2020 election had been stolen by Joe Biden. A vast tranche of damning discovery and testimony surfaced late last week as part of the $1.4 billion defamation lawsuit Dominion Voting Systems filed against Fox News in March 2021. The company’s petition for summary judgment furnishes the basis for this dumbfounding saga; you can read the 200-page document here.

The head-challenged wind-talker reached out to Powell at a pivotal moment in the crank lawyer’s effort to delegitimize the 2020 balloting. Shortly after the election, Powell had gamely floated a theory during an interview with Fox News host Lou Dobbs that a secret CIA program called “Hammer and Scorecard” had been flipping ballots in Biden’s direction, but the attempt to foment scandal fell flat. Powell fielded the e-mail from this, uh, jumpy and suggestible source the day after her Dobbs appearance, and found one of the claims in it explosive: that Dominion Voting Systems had harnessed a recondite algorithm to manipulate vote counts in favor of the Democratic presidential ticket. (The correspondent threw in a couple of other claims as a bonus—that former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had been taken out during a human-hunting expedition near the Bohemian Grove plutocratic retreat in Northern California, and that Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, the latter of whom had at that point been dead three years, met regularly in order to discredit Donald Trump, but these hot tips would have to take a back seat in the election crisis.)

Powell promptly forwarded the e-mail, which bore the heading “Election Fraud Info,” to Fox host Maria Bartiromo, prior to her scheduled appearance on Bartiromo’s Sunday Morning Futures show on November 8. Bartirimo in turn forwarded it to presidential son Eric Trump, and adopted it as the basis for her interview with Powell. In subsequent testimony, Bartiromo dismissed the content of the e-mail as “nonsense,” but for her and the rest of the Fox team, it was supremely useful nonsense.

As it happened, the network had officially called the election for Biden in the two-day interval between Powell’s ill-fated romance with Hammer and Scorecard and the debut of Operation Get Dominion on Bartiromo’s Sunday morning broadcast. That blow, combined with the network’s accurate early call of Arizona for Biden on election night, had enraged the conservative base that furnished the cable leviathan’s $14 billion revenue model. Fox viewers were demanding content telling them Trump had been cheated out of another term, and were streaming over to right-wing cable rival Newmax to lap it up. So Fox executives and on-air talent stampeded to follow Bartiromo’s lead, and took up the bogus Dominion narrative with all deliberate speed. Network CEO Suzanne Scott lamented to one of her underlings that former DC managing editor Bill Sammon failed to grasp “the impact to the brand and the arrogance in calling AZ”—an “astonishing” oversight given that Sammon was obliged as “a top executive” to “protect the brand.”

Thus summoned, the brand rallied to the delirious fantasies promoted by Sidney Powell as evidence of a stupendous political crime, and an existential affront to all the right-believing Real Americans marshaled behind the lucrative on-air tantrums thrown by Bartiromo, Dobbs, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and the rest of the network’s lineup. The Dominion petition documents the sheer panic that seized a network forced to adopt a new mode of defamatory demagogy on the fly. When Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked a Trump tweet that repeated wild fabrications about Dominion while referencing Dobbs and Hannity segments devoted to them, the sanctums of Fox power shook with outrage. Carlson texted 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.”

The Dominion petition teems with damning exchanges in this vein, but it’s worth lingering over this one. Here the leading prime-time face of a news organization is demanding the cashiering of a reporter for the sin of reporting. If the press is not calling out untruths from powerful leaders, it’s not good for much of anything—but that’s not a concern for either Carlson or Hannity, who respectively draw reported annual salaries of $35 million and $45 million.

For all the copious documentation of justifiable defamation claims in the Dominion petition, this is its principal takeaway: Fox News is in no meaningful sense a news organization. Just for starters, engaging in a journalistic race to the bottom with an outlet like Newsmax—a wall-to-wall dreamscape of MAGA fabulation now fending off its own Dominion defamation suit—is something any remotely legitimate news-gathering operation should automatically lose by definition. But the outbursts of Scott, Carlson, and their colleagues aren’t detained by fusty notions of speaking truth to power or holding leaders accountable to the public interest; no, they are steeped in talk of branding and stock returns. This rhetoric veers into the territory of genuine bathos when the C-suite talk in Foxland turns to the laughable notion of “respecting” the network’s viewership, a bit of corporate jargon outstripped only by the reverent mentions of the sacred totem of Fox’s “brand.”

Denial soon became the managerial template at Fox. When former White House correspondent Kristen Fisher mistakenly followed Heinrich’s lead and offered an on-air fact check of false election claims from Powell and her sweaty understudy Rudy Giuliani, retribution from on high was swift, as Fisher’s testimony in the Dominion petition recounts: “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.’… (Fisher texts about being ‘punished for doing my job’ after fact-checking Giuliani).”

This is more flagrant journalistic malpractice. The point of news-gathering in a democracy is precisely to tell the public things it would, in a more perfect world, prefer not to hear. It’s true that Fox could have continued hemorrhaging market share by continuing to report the simple truth that the 2020 election was legitimate, and that Biden was the clear winner—but as Fisher and Heinrich well understood, the manic scrum to retain audience share had nothing to do with the basic work of journalism.

The rough principle here seems to be that no perceived slight is too small to count as fodder for the grievance politics of the MAGA right—and that broadcasting a series of lies aimed at destabilizing the foundations of American democracy and enabling a right-wing coup is a necessary and just exercise in brand integrity and audience “respect,” particularly at the moment when it might threaten the lavish pay packets of Messrs. Hannity and Carlson. This is so much the opposite of journalism that one might well say of Team Fox that they have been internally decapitated—and yet they live.

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