The Fallout of Fox News’ Public Shaming
In the days following the 2src2src election, Rupert Murdoch, the chair of Fox Corp and executive chairman of News Corp, was worried about one of his most lucrative businesses. Fox News had been the first major network to call Arizona for Joe Biden on Election Night, a brutal blow to Donald Trump’s reëlection hopes, and
In the days following the 2src2src election, Rupert Murdoch, the chair of Fox Corp and executive chairman of News Corp, was worried about one of his most lucrative businesses. Fox News had been the first major network to call Arizona for Joe Biden on Election Night, a brutal blow to Donald Trump’s reëlection hopes, and Fox viewers weren’t happy. “@FoxNews daytime ratings have completely collapsed,” Trump tweeted. “Very sad to watch this happen, but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose.”
Two days after the Arizona call, the anchor Bret Baier e-mailed Fox News’ president, Jay Wallace, to suggest retracting it. “It’s hurting us,” he wrote, proposing that the network put the state “back in his column,” referring to Trump. A few days after the election was called for Biden, Baier texted Wallace and his fellow-anchor Martha MacCallum that he was “trying to focus on the memes not the Fox hating.” MacCallum was similarly glum. “I can’t look at any of it anymore,” she wrote. “I’m watching the Queens Gambit, good escape.”
Murdoch was sending unhappy messages to the network’s C.E.O., Suzanne Scott. “Getting creamed by CNN!” he wrote to her the day after Biden was declared the winner. “Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it.” That same day, Tucker Carlson texted the Fox News producer Gavin Hadden: “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire.” Hadden was soothing. “Hopefully just a moment in time,” he wrote. “We will just ride on your shoulders.” Carlson was still jittery. “With Trump behind it,” he wrote, “an alternative like newsmax could be devastating to us.”
During the past few weeks, such texts and e-mails from Fox News hosts have been made public in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox, which claims that the network knowingly aired false allegations that the election was stolen from Trump, at least in part, with the help of Dominion’s products. “I hate him passionately,” Carlson said of Trump in one text message. According to Laura Ingraham, another of the network’s prime-time hosts, Trump’s attorney Sidney Powell, who peddled election lies on the network, was “a bit nuts.” Fox News’ lawyers have argued that Dominion has taken the communications out of context and “has not even identified any defamatory statement of fact . . . attributable to Fox News.” Much of the non-Fox News media, meanwhile, has crowed at tangible evidence of the network’s duplicitous coverage and speculated about whether any of it will force Fox News to reform. “The documents lay bare that the channel’s business model is not based on informing its audience, but rather on feeding them content—even dangerous conspiracy theories—that keeps viewers happy and watching,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy wrote. Margaret Sullivan, in a column for the Guardian, asked if a Fox News loss in the lawsuit might “make coverage more responsible.”
But, despite the bad headlines, Fox News has little incentive to change its ways. For one thing, the network’s loyal audience is likely to remain glued to their screens, especially as a contested G.O.P. Presidential primary plays out on-air over the next two years. Thanks to that audience, the rate that Fox News charges cable companies to carry its shows is the highest among cable-news providers. So long as its ratings remain high, the network can negotiate fat fees. There’s been some suggestion that the recent disclosures about Fox News hosts’ conversations behind the scenes, particularly a seemingly shared disregard for Trump among some of them, could erode viewership numbers. But a cable executive I spoke with seemed confident that the network would remain largely unaffected. “The audience is not going anywhere,” they said. “Fox may be forced to read an apology on air or something, but the audience still loves the product. It’s basically the W.W.E. for this kind of world.”
What’s more, Fox News’ parent company has pursued a successful, if conservative, fiscal strategy in the past few years. As other media companies rushed to acquire more and more properties—bigger is thought to be better in the subscription video-streaming wars—Fox Corp decided to offload. In 2src19, its deal to sell Twenty-first Century Fox to Disney netted the company $71.3 billion. Since then, Fox Corp has focussed on a niche strategy of live sports and news. When the company did get into the streaming business, it was on a more moderate scale. Fox Nation, which launched in 2src18, was meant to be a supplement for Fox News’ most dedicated viewers; it reportedly has around 1.5 million subscribers. Fox Corp’s bigger streaming success has been with Tubi, an ad-supported streaming service that the company purchased in 2src2src for four hundred and forty million dollars. It’s not a premium product like HBO Max or Disney+—Tubi streams shows such as “Duck Dynasty” and “Fear Factor”—but it’s proved to be a steady source of growth. Fox has reportedly turned down multiple two-billion-dollar offers to purchase the service.
Of course, a loss in the Dominion trial would have an impact. Dominion is seeking $1.6 billion in damages, and Fox is facing a similar lawsuit from Smartmatic, another voting-tech company, which is claiming $2.7 billion in damages. Assuming the Dominion case goes to trial next month instead of settling out of court—something that close watchers of the proceedings think is more and more likely—Fox risks a hefty financial burden. Although Dominion might get only a fraction of the $1.6 billion in compensatory damages if it wins at trial—essentially, revenue the company can prove that it lost because of the defamation—Sandy Bohrer, a former partner at a large law firm who defended defamation suits for decades, said that the network could face huge exposure on punitive damages. “It’s a very, very unsympathetic defendant,” he said. “I have never seen this bad a case for a defendant. Ever.” A number of law firms are already soliciting to file suits on behalf of Fox Corp shareholders. Even still, Fox could likely absorb a sum in the billions without bankrupting its business.
But Fox News could still find itself imperilled if its pro-Trump audience turns against some of its biggest stars, such as Carlson. In one of the released messages, Carlson called Trump “a demonic force, a destroyer.” Two days before the January 6th riot at the Capitol, he texted Hadden that “we are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights” and lamented what they had felt forced to do for the previous four years. “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest,” Carlson texted. “But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.” So far, though, Trump and Carlson are playing nice. Trump recently posted angry messages about Murdoch on Truth Social, but he had only kind things to say about Carlson’s special report on previously unseen video footage from the January 6th riot, which was shared with him exclusively by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy. The report was criticized as misleading and damaging by the Capitol Police chief and by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He doesn’t hate me, or at least, not anymore!” Trump wrote on Truth Social, of Carlson.