A court filing made public late Thursday shows top executives at Fox News and leading hosts on the network privately dismissing former President Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the days that followed the 2020 presidential election, expressing worry about how fact checks of the president’s assertions might upset the network’s audience.
Top network hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham in text messages referred to the voter fraud allegations made by Trump and his associates as “insane” while network leadership debated how rebuking those claims on the air might hurt the conservative media giant’s reputation with its viewers, according to the filing.
Correspondence and testimony from top talent and executives at the network were made public as part of an ongoing defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News and its parent company, seeking $1.6 billion in damages, for what the voting software company says was Fox’s broadcasting of information about it that the network’s leaders knew were false.
Fox, in legal filings and public statements, has countered that the president’s allegations about voter fraud were newsworthy but has, so far, unsuccessfully moved to have the case dismissed on First Amendment grounds.
“There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners, but the core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v. Sullivan,” the network said in a statement in response to the revelations.
The correspondence and testimony made public this week, some of which was redacted and first reported by The New York Times, provides the most detailed accounting yet of how top brass at the nation’s leading cable news channel struggled to cover election fraud claims being put forth by the president of the United States and his allies in the weeks after the election.
“Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane,” Carlson wrote in one text message to Ingraham, the court filing shows.
“Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy [Giuliani],” Ingraham responded.
Carlson wrote back, “it’s unbelievably offensive to me. Our viewers are good people and they believe it.”
On Nov. 21, Carlson texted an unidentified Fox employee that it was “shockingly reckless” of Powell to claim the election had been stolen from Trump.
Attempts to fact-check claims of voter fraud coming from Trump and his associates on air also did not sit well with some leaders at the network, the filing shows.
On Nov. 9, as the network was broadcasting a White House press briefing during which press secretary Kayleigh McEnany was making false statements about voter fraud, host Neil Cavuto cut away, telling his viewers he could not “in good countenance continue to show you this.”
Raj Shah, a Fox Corp. executive, wrote to network leadership after the episode, saying Cavuto’s action represented a “brand threat,” according to the filing.
On Nov. 12, after Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich published a tweet disputing claims from Trump about Dominion, outlining how elections officials had determined the company did not engage in voter fraud, Carlson sent Hannity the reporter’s tweet saying, “Please get her fired … It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
The concerns about Trump’s election claims extended to the top levels of Fox’s leadership, the filing shows.
The day before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, media mogul Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox Corp, wrote to Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott saying, “it’s been suggested our prime time three should independently or together say something like the election is over and Joe Biden won,” adding it “would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election was stolen.”
Murdoch wrote on another occasion that claims coming from Giuliani should be “taken with a large grain of salt. Everything at stake here.”
Days after the network was the first to call Arizona for President Biden on election night, a move that enraged the Trump campaign, Scott wrote to another network executive criticizing its senior vice president and managing editor in Washington over how the race call was handled, saying she found it “astonishing,” given it was this executive’s job to “protect the brand.”
Fox, in a legal filing defending itself also filed this week, argued the network “fulfilled its commitment to inform fully and comment fairly” on Trump’s election claims.
A Fox spokesperson said 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.”
Fox’s lawyers have also argued that Dominion has overstated its valuation as it seeks more than a billion dollars in damages.
“Some hosts viewed the president’s claims skeptically; others viewed them hopefully,” Fox’s filing reads. “All recognized them as profoundly newsworthy.”
A jury trial in Dominion’s case against Fox is expected to begin this spring.
—Updated at 9:23 a.m.