Fox News has long staked its business model and public reputation to the claim that the network is primarily a news organization that just happens to feature conservative commentators in prime time. Decades of Fox programming, previous glimpses behind the curtain at its operations, and public statements from former network employees have cast doubt on this narrative. But the filings produced by Dominion Voting Systems in its $1.6 billion defamation suit against the network leave little doubt that Fox's "news” side is a total farce.
As Fox begins to pitch advertising executives today at its Manhattan studio -- the same day as a summary judgment hearing on whether to decide the case before the trial, scheduled to begin next month -- anyone considering going into business with the network should be crystal clear on what they're supporting.
The Fox internal emails, text messages, and depositions from Fox employees that Dominion compiled through the discovery process reveal that the firestorm of criticism from the right in response to the network’s call that Joe Biden had won Arizona triggered a panic within Fox. The network's response to the criticism laid bare how it makes decisions based on political and financial concerns rather than anything remotely resembling journalistic ethics.
The documents show that Fox’s right-wing stars knew that the election fraud claims concocted by then-President Donald Trump and his lawyers were not credible but promoted them anyway. One even called for getting a “news” side colleague fired for fact-checking the conspiracy theories too aggressively.
They show the Fox brass stepping in to chastise “news” side personnel for debunking false claims and treating conspiracy theories with insufficient respect; permitting right-wing hosts to go on the air whom executives knew would behave irresponsibly; and forcing out longtime newsroom leader BIll Sammon, who oversaw the Arizona call, in order to send “a big message with Trump people.”
They show that Fox “has no written editorial guidelines” and that its senior “news” anchor, Bret Baier, sent an email to network president Jay Wallace arguing that the Arizona call is “hurting us” and that should Fox “pull it” and “put it back in his [Trump’s] column.” (The New York Times further reported that during a November 16, 2020, meeting with Fox executives, Baier and fellow anchor Martha MacCallum had argued that “viewer reaction should be considered” in making election calls. The Times also wrote that Wallace had overruled Sammon’s team when it sought to call Nevada — and thus the election — for Biden).
And they show Rupert Murdoch, the network’s founder and the head of its parent company, sharing confidential information about Biden ads with the Trump team — a possible violation of federal law — and repeatedly and explicitly instructing Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott to use the network to help GOP Senate candidates win their elections.
Fox’s top executives, its PR and marketing operatives, and the network’s on-air stars have spent decades telling Fox business partners, journalists at other outlets, and the public that Fox is a news outlet like any other, rather than a right-wing propaganda outfit. According to the network’s well-worn talking points, it maintains a professional “news” side which produces objective journalism that operates independently from the “opinion” side stable of conservative pundits, just as a newspaper employs both reporters who write for the A section and columnists who contribute opinion pieces for the editorial page.
The network’s “news” side employees became adept at using this comparison to stave off criticism of its right-wing content. Asked during a 2016 interview whether it was “fair to call Fox News a conservative broadcasting network,” then-Fox anchor Chris Wallace replied, “No, look, there are obviously, in prime time, there are some shows, the opinion shows — [Sean] Hannity, [Bill] O'Reilly — that are conservative, no question about it. But we think there's a firewall between the opinion shows and hard news."
This narrative has always been dubious and self-serving: While Fox’s “news” division’s product bears a cursory resemblance to that of a normal news outlet, its story selection and framing traditionally mimicked that of the network’s right-wing stars, while its leaders encouraged reporters to consider Fox “the voice of opposition” against Democrats and to inject Republican talking points into their broadcasts.
The claim became even less defensible in recent years as Fox reinvented itself as Donald Trump’s state TV channel and shed both news hours and its most credible “news” side personalities. As Wallace put it after leaving Fox for CNN in 2021, the network’s propaganda had made working there “unsustainable” for anyone with an interest in the truth.
But the Dominion filings take a talking point that had been teetering on its foundations and reduce it to rubble. Even the network’s own staffers appear to recognize that the documents show they don’t work for a normal news outlet.
Media Matters has long described the network as a right-wing propaganda machine that uses rank demagoguery, misinformation, and conspiracy theories to achieve its dual goals of making money and helping Republicans win elections, and said its “news” side’s purpose is primarily PR.
The filings show that the network’s top executives and biggest stars secretly agree, and that in the days following the 2020 election, they repeatedly breached the “firewall” supposedly protecting the “news” side’s independence in order to achieve those ends. And that means that there’s no more plausible deniability: No one associated with Fox, from its employees to its business partners to its guests, can say they didn’t know what they were dealing with.