David Corn provides the most exhaustive analysis I have seen of the public version of the legal brief filed by Dominion Voting Systems on February 16, 2023 in its $1.6. billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News. The internal communications of the top people at Fox reveal the extent of the utterly cynical lying campaign that they waged in the wake of the 2020 election, where they went all in on promoting Donald Trump’s Big Lie that the election was rigged, even as they knew that it was not, since their own in-house election analysis team got the results right. Indeed, in response to a question as to whether Joe Biden was legitimately elected, Suzanne Scott, Fox News CEO, replied “Yes, I believe that.”
As Corn says:
No other self-proclaimed news organization has ever been so fully discredited as Fox has been with this one legal brief. (You should read the document.) This is not the case of one reporter, one editor, or one story going off the rails. This is an indictment of an entire outfit. The full barrel of apples is rotten to the core. What this filing demonstrates is that the Fox universe is racked with corruption, greed, fear, irrationality, cynicism, and ignorance—from top to bottom. That ought to be the ultimate takeaway.
Just as the GOP had become hostage to a base that had been radicalized over the years—thanks to the divisive and demagogic politicking of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, and then Trump—Fox now was dependent upon a rabid and Trumpified audience for ratings and, thus, revenue. Its host and personalities feared the wrath of Fox viewers who had been conditioned by years of Fox’s Manichaean and skewed coverage to yearn for even bloodier red meat and who now demanded the network champion the Big Lie. They were enraged that Fox on election night called Arizona for Biden and then days later declared Biden the ultimate victor. And that ire, the Fox team worried, could lead these viewers to switch off Fox and head toward Newsmax.
The filing is filled with texts and emails between Fox executives and hosts emphasizing they had to kowtow to their incensed viewers. [Tucker] Carlson told [Suzanne Scott, the Fox CEO] directly, “I’ve never seen a reaction like this, to any media company. Kills me to watch it.” In an exchange with Lachlan Murdoch, Scott stated that in order to maintain the “trust” of viewers, the network had to let them know “we hear them and respect them.” Which meant play to the Trump-fueled, unfounded belief that the election was crooked. In another message to another Fox exec, she termed calling Arizona for Biden a failure “to protect the brand.” In a different message, Scott noted, “The audience feels like we crapped on [them] and we have damaged their trust and belief in us…We can fix this but we cannot smirk at our viewers any longer.” Put simply, Fox could not tell the audience the truth. Their viewers could not handle it.
Carlson realized this. After Fox declared Biden the winner, he texted his producer: “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real…an alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.”
Hannity viewed the situation the way a politician—not a journalist—would. He told fellow host Steve Doocy that the network was facing a “major backlash” from the audience, adding, “You don’t piss off the base.” He texted Carlson and Ingraham, “The network is being rejected.” Carlson responded, “I’ve heard from angry viewers every hour of the day all weekend, including at dinner tonight,” to which Hannity replied, “Same same same. Never before has this ever happened.”
Carlson, Hannity, Ingraham, and the rest of the Fox crew had trained their viewers to believe the worst of the Democrats and accept the flood of lies from Trump and his comrades on the right. Now they couldn’t flip the switch. And they worried about their livelihoods: If they told their viewers the truth—there was no significant election fraud; the conspiracy theorists were hurling hogwash—their audience would turn to Newsmax and the network would suffer financially. So, as Dominion’s lawyers claim in this brief, Fox hosts and execs spoonfed their viewers more lies and falsehoods, knowing this was all one big con.
To some, it is no big shock to discover that Fox is driven to inflame not inform its audience. But if there were ever any debate over that, this document settles the matter. For financial profit, Fox has for years radicalized its viewers and reaffirmed their most profound apprehensions and most malevolent biases. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Fox had to pander to what they had created or risk losing audience share. It chose the latter, opting for demagoguery over democracy to make a buck.
Winning defamation suits against public individuals or media entities in the US is very difficult. But as the brief says:
This case differs from nearly any defamation case before it. Normally plaintiffs prove defendants’ actual malice—whether they knew it was false or “in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of the statement”—”by inference, as it would be rare for a defendant to admit such doubts.” Here, however, overwhelming direct evidence establishes Fox’s knowledge of falsity, not just “doubts.”
Normally defamation cases involve a single defamatory statement. Here, Fox defamed Dominion not once. Not twice. Not three times. But continually.. Over a months-long time frame.
Normally defamation cases involve the state of mind of one person, or sometimes a handful, as the law only requires that one person with editorial responsibility have the requisite actual malice. Here, however, literally dozens of people with editorial responsibility—from the top of the organization to the producers of specific shows to the hosts themselves—acted with actual malice.
Normally multiple public sources, credible third parties, and governmental agencies at all levels do not debunk the lies in realtime. Here, however, they all did so—and Fox knew about them.(p. 3,4)
Senior executives at FOX were trashing people like Rudy Giuliani and Sydney Powell and other Bg Lie propagators in the strongest terms, calling them and their ideas ‘crazy’, ‘nuts’, ‘lunatic’, ‘poison’, ‘idiot’, ‘insane’, while at the same time their hosts such as Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, and Jeanine Pirro were giving them plenty of air time. It is also interesting to read Carlson texting his producer, “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” (p. 23,24). Carlson seeks ‘credibility’ in the sense of people believing what he says whether it is true or not, not in the sense of being someone who is believed because they have proven to be a reliable source of information.
That some TV personalities can be shallow and ignorant is hardly noteworthy. That they shade and slant things to protect some and attack others is also not uncommon. But it is astonishing that people like Carlson, Hannity, and Ingraham can be so utterly shameless in the way that in public they so blatantly contradicted what they said amongst themselves in private. Their fear of what their viewers would do if they were not pandered to is a striking example of cowardice and cravenness.