Chasing Newsmax: How Fox Heard Footsteps
The Mediaverse by Dennis Kneale, TruthDAO opinion columnist
Two nettlesome questions arise in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit filed against Fox News by Dominion Voting Systems. Why did Fox executives, anchors, and producers carry on with the coverage, even after the claims became wilder and remained unverified? And why didn’t senior executives rein in the anchors and push for more balance?
The answer lies in the beastly nature of the TV news business. Network executives, deathly afraid of audience loss, are reluctant to crack down on star anchors, who help draw viewers and ad dollars; they prefer, instead, to talk behind the talent’s back.
Tucker Carlson’s show rakes in more than $100 million a year, part of $6 billion a year in total ad sales at Fox News. And Fox news brings in virtually all of the almost $3 billion in annual profit at parent Fox Corp.
Fox brass, and Tucker himself, worried about losing viewers to Newsmax (where I write “What’s Bugging Me”), even as they scrambled to track which charges had been disproven. Newsmax was playing up Trump’s allegations of fraud, going even farther than Fox.
“With respect to Newsmax, the lack of any meaningful editorial guidance may be a positive for them at least in the short term,” a Fox SVP in viewer analytics said in one memo, which was quoted in the Dominion lawsuit. “This type of conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled FNC viewer is looking for.” He concluded, “Do not ever give viewers a reason to turn us off.”
Another Fox executive emailed about Newsmax: “They’re not a news organization. We have to follow journalistic rules they do not have to, and they simply do not.” He told his boss that Rudy Giuliani, one of the three main accusers, had mentioned voting servers in foreign countries on the Lou Dobbs show, but “this claim had not been verified.”
Hours later, the same veep was told that anchor Maria Bartiromo was sharing conspiracy theories about Dominion on Parler, responding, “I don’t know why she invites this.”
On Nov. 19, 2020, two weeks after the election, Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani held a disastrous press conference. They looked a bit unhinged, and they failed to offer evidence of their stunning allegations. That night, Tucker Carlson dared to express some doubt on-air.
He did so with “his voice ringing with incredulity in a 10-minute monologue at the top of his show,” as Jeremy Peters of The New York Times put it the next day. Carlson told his four million viewers that Powell “never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of requests.”
But Tucker stopped short of revealing that he believed she was lying. “Instead,” the lawsuit states, “he closed by saying, ‘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.’”
This reasonable monologue sparked a backlash from pro-Trump viewers, and this concerned him. Carlson complained in a text to Sean Hannity about a fact-checking tweet by Fox reporter Jacqui Henrich, who had responded to a Trump tweet that cited both Carlson and Hannity’s shows, pointing out that there was no evidence of voting systems’ switching votes.
Carlson: “Please get her fired. Seriously What the f--- ? actually shocked it needs to stop immediately , like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company.” Bad punctuation left intact.
Hannity agreed and said he had sent a “really?” email to Fox executive Suzanne Scott. Later, he texted to his staff that he had “dropped a bomb.”
Scott, in turn, texted two other Fox SVPs: “Sean texted me he’s standing down on responding but not happy about this and doesn’t understand how this is allowed to happen from anyone in news. She [Heinrich] has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted.” Disgusted?
For the record, folks, Jacqui Henrich, a news reporter who covers the White House, was doing her job. “By the next morning,” the Dominion complaint recounts, “Henrich had deleted her fact-checking tweet.”
Yet Hannity, who is cited 78 times in the lawsuit, “knew Powell’s claims were false,” the lawsuit states. In testifying for this case, he said, “I did not believe it for one second.”
By Nov. 30, on Hannity’s radio show that day, Sidney Powell was unable to provide proof of her allegations, and Hannity later testified that this “was the nail in the coffin for me.” Yet Sean then interviewed Powell on his Fox show that night, without revealing any of this.
Set for jury selection in April, the Dominion lawsuit argues that Fox News knowingly—and with “reckless disregard for the truth,” as libel case law requires a plaintiff to prove—stoked false allegations of election fraud to boost ratings, thereby devastating Dominion’s business.
As noted in Part One, Dominion’s $1.6 billion claim is a fabulist fantasy, given it is valued at $80 million and still has $100 million in annual revenue. In addition, all the agonizing by Fox executives, disclosed so nakedly in the lawsuit, may convince a jury that they were constantly raising concerns about the credibility of the fraud allegations.
So, where was the required reckless disregard for the truth?
Plus this: even if Fox anchors and producers doubted the claims, does this give them the obligation, or even the right, to stop that viewpoint from being heard at all? They lacked incontrovertible proof the allegations were false.
A sitting President of the United States was claiming election fraud, and three well known public figures came forward, willing to go on the record with scandalous allegations and insisting they had proof. Why would any media outlet ignore this story?
But news anchors and opinion-show hosts owe it to their viewers to be authentic and transparent, and to tell as full a picture as they can, and to be forthcoming about any doubts that might harbor about the reliability of what they are reporting. in the right instances how the reliability of the charges they report. Stop leaving out the important stuff.
Dennis Kneale, @denniskneale on Twitter, is a media strategist and writer in New York. He spent more than 30 years at The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, CNBC, and Fox Business. His podcast is called "What's Bugging Me."