Dominion ballot case exposes post-election fear on Fox News End-shutdown
NEW YORK (AP) – A court filing in a lawsuit v. Fox News exposes network panic that it had alienated its viewers and damaged its brand by not aligning itself with President Donald Trump’s false claims who had won the 2020 presidential election.
That concern — a real concern, judging by Fox’s post-election ratings — played a key role in Fox’s failing to set the record straight on unsubstantiated fraud claims, the network’s accuser contends.
“It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” Fox Washington news executive Bill Sammon was quoted as saying in the document.
The details were included in a trove of private communications uncovered by lawyers and contained in a redacted brief filed Thursday by Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion claims in a $1.6 billion lawsuit that Fox aired accusations that Dominion had rigged the vote against Trump, even when he knew that was not true. Fox says he was doing his job as a news organization by airing the allegations made by Trump and his allies.
Fox’s internal problems started with a successful call: Declaring on Election Night 2020 that Democrat Joe Biden had beaten Trump in Arizona. The statement, which preempted other news organizations, angered the president and his supporters.
The reaction was noted in internal emails. “Holy cow, our audience is mad at the network,” said one, as quoted by Dominion. “They are FURIOUS,” said another.
Five days after the election, Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch told Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott that the channel “was being beaten by CNN. I guess our viewers don’t want to see it,” according to court documents.
Fox News fell from first to third in the news network ratings between the November 3, 2020 election and Biden’s January 20, 2021 inauguration, according to the Nielsen company. Meanwhile, thousands of Fox viewers flocked to the more conservative Newsmax.where the prime time audience soared from 58,000 the week before the election to 568,000 the following week.
The change shook the foundations of a network that had consistently led the news ratings for most of the past two decades.
Fox retook the lead by veering more sharply to the right after Biden took office. But immediately after the election, there was genuine concern at its New York headquarters.
Almost immediately, the network went “on a war footing,” Dominion said, citing a Fox executive.
“Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we have lost with our audience?” Fox primetime star Tucker Carlson wrote to his producer, according to the Dominion report. “We’re playing with fire, really… an alternative like newsmax could be devastating for us.”
Dominion contends that Fox executives made the decision to push false narratives to appeal to their audience, pointing to claims made by Trump allies such as lawyer Sidney Powell on shows hosted by Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs.
On November 9, Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto interrupted a press conference held by Trump adviser Kayleigh McEnaney when he began issuing unsubstantiated accusations. A Fox executive complained afterward that Cavuto was damaging the network’s brand.
Court documents also detailed two cases in which Fox News reporters were targeted internally for tweeting fact checks. In one, reporter Jacqui Heinrich tweeted that there was no evidence that any voting system was deleting, losing or changing votes.
“Please fire her,” Carlson texted fellow host Sean Hannity, saying Heinrich was hurting the company, according to the Dominion filing. Heinrich’s tweet was later deleted, according to court documents.
He later retweeted the fact check, removing the names of Hannity and Dobbs.
Carlson himself tried to “thread the needle,” Dominion said. He pointed out how he publicly stated that Powell never provided evidence to support their fraud claims. “On the other hand, he didn’t say what he privately believed: that she was lying,” Dominion said.
Fox said many of his specific answers will come in a document that Superior Court Judge Eric Davis in Delaware ordered sealed until February 27. Fox said Dominion had misrepresented the record and selected quotes stripped of key context.
“There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and its opportunistic private equity owners, but at the heart of this case remains freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights granted by the Constitution and protected by New York. times v. Sullivan,” Fox said.
If either party can persuade Davis to grant summary judgment in their favor, the case will end without a jury trial. Otherwise, the trial is scheduled to begin in mid-April.
As a result of Sullivan and subsequent cases, such defamation cases against journalists are often very difficult to prove, and Fox also argues that Dominion is grossly overestimating any economic damage to the company.
Ultimately, though, the case is pulling back the curtain on what happened on the nation’s largest media outlet that appeals to conservative viewers at a pivotal moment in the network’s and the nation’s history.
“Privately, Fox hosts and executives knew that Donald Trump lost the election and that he needed to relent,” Dominion argued in the documents released Thursday. “But Fox viewers heard a different story, repeatedly.”
This story was first published on February 18, 2023. It was updated on February 23, 2023 to clarify that reporter Jacqui Heinrich sent a second fact-checking tweet after being ordered to remove the first one.