What the Dominion filings tell us about a Fox News “soft ban” on Trump interviews
Former President Donald Trump has been hit with a “soft ban” at Fox News, the Republican propaganda outlet that helped put him in the White House, several members of his orbit told Semafor in a piece published Wednesday. Indeed, while the network has lavished other 2024 GOP presidential candidates with interviews and airtime, Trump has not appeared since launching his campaign in November — even as the network’s own polling has him leading the primary.
The recent filings by Dominion Voting Systems in its $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox provide crucial insight into the network’s reported Trump blockade. The internal emails, text messages, and depositions revealed in the documents show that Fox executives do issue top-down mandates that on-air talent follow to help or hurt particular political candidates. But they are also acutely aware that crossing Trump could lead to devastating consequences for the network — and thus while they may not be hosting him, Fox personalities keep regularly praising Trump to maintain their future options.
Airtime on Fox — the most trusted major outlet on the right — is extremely valuable to Republican political candidates. They use it to build their brands with the network’s audience, curry favor with its powerful hosts, and raise money. Fox appearances can help politicians who are seeking the party’s nomination win their primaries. Trump, who used a regular weekly segment on Fox & Friends to boost his political profile and spent nearly twice as much time on the network during the 2016 primary as the next-most-frequent presidential candidate, is a classic case study of this phenomenon.
But this time, Semafor reports, Fox is denying Trump access to its viewers. And Trump’s circle is blaming Rupert Murdoch, Fox News’ co-founder and the chair of its parent company, and his son and would-be heir Lachlan. “It’s certainly — however you want to say, quiet ban, soft ban, whatever it is — indicative of how the Murdochs feel about Trump in this particular moment,” one source told the outlet. “The understanding is that they’re [Fox] not to have Trump on for an interview, because the Murdochs have made it pretty clear they want to move on from Trump … Fox is showing that by not having him on,” another added.
The Dominion filings provide some support for this theory. They show Rupert Murdoch casually and repeatedly ordering subordinates to use Fox’s airtime to help or hinder particular political candidates. At a real news network, the parent company’s owner issuing an edict to ice out a political candidate would be understood as so unethical as to be absurd — but that’s not what Fox is. The filings show Murdoch taking a hand in at least four cases:
- “Rupert had conversations with Scott about the ‘importance of giving exposure to Republicans in close Senate races’” during the run-up to the 2020 election, Dominion reports.
- In an email, Murdoch asked Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott whether Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity could “say something supportive” of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), because “we cannot lose the Senate if at all possible.”
- In another email after Election Day, he told her Fox “should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can” in the runoff elections that would determine which party controlled the Senate.
- And the filings show him urging Fox to take sides in a GOP primary, telling Scott in 2018 that she should be “helpful” in efforts by Trump and then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to prevent coal mogul Don Blankenship from becoming the party’s nominee for U.S. Senate in West Virginia.
So yes, the Dominion filings suggest that Rupert Murdoch ordering his network’s employees not to let Trump on its airwaves is absolutely within the realm of possibility.
But they also show that this strategy would be extremely high-risk, and perhaps unsustainable, particularly if Trump continues to lead the GOP presidential field.
In the immediate aftermath of Election Day 2020, as Trump baselessly claimed the election had been rigged against him, Murdoch and other Fox executives wanted to avoid giving too much credence to his conspiracy theories, the filings show. But after Fox called Arizona for Trump — and the then-president lashed out at the network — it took a hit with viewers.
As Fox’s ratings plummeted and internal research showed the audience was furious, the Fox brass and its stars panicked. “We’re playing with fire, for real,” star host Tucker Carlson texted his producer on November 7, 2020. “An alternative like newsmax could be devastating to us.” Raj Shah, the former Trump White House staffer turned Fox Corp. executive who led its “Brand Protection Unit,” assessed the devastating results of a poll of Fox viewers and concluded that “bold, clear and decisive action is needed for us to begin to regain the trust that we’re losing with our core audience.”
Fox responded by reversing course and platforming election liars in hopes that they could “keep the audience who loves and trusts us,” as Scott put it. By promoting claims they knew were false, Fox rebuilt its ratings — at the cost of furthering Trump’s effort to delegitimize the election, which culminated in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by violent Trumpists seeking to overturn the results.
Two years later, Fox remains vulnerable to losing viewers if it crosses Trump too aggressively. Polls show the former president remains extremely popular with Republicans and is leading the 2024 Republican primary; the most recent survey from Fox’s own pollster has his support at 43%, a 15-point lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump, as he did after the Arizona call, has recently turned to lashing out at Fox and Murdoch on his Truth Social platform, perhaps in retaliation for the “soft ban.” And Newsmax, the competitor to which Fox lost viewers in November 2020, has begun hammering Fox for abandoning Trump.
Fox’s executive and staff likely recognize that Trump could once again imperil Fox’s bottom line, so they are leaving themselves room to maneuver. Semafor noted that Trump is “often featured with exclusive articles” on Fox’s website. While the hosts may not be allowed to have the former president as a guest, they still frequently praise him on their programs. In recent days, Carlson has touted Trump “unleashed in a crowd of people” to order from McDonald’s during a visit to East Palestine, Ohio, while fellow host Laura Ingraham gushed over the “frontal assault against our policy with China” he released. And of course, Trump political operative Hannity’s show is a festival of accolades for the former president.
Murdoch’s hope may be that Fox is currently better positioned to exploit its lack of journalistic ethics while weathering criticism from the right because other right-wing networks like OAN and Newsmax are less available to its viewers than they were in late 2020. That may buy the network enough time for another candidate – perhaps DeSantis – to get into the race and take the lead.
But if Trump retains his position as the 2024 front-runner, maintaining a “soft ban” on his appearances will become untenable. Exposed to its competitors, Fox will need to either backpedal into Trump’s camp or sacrifice its viewership. And as Murdoch acknowledged in his deposition with Dominion, his top priority “is not red or blue – it is green.”