Records in Fox defamation case show pressures on reporters

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FILE - A headline about President Donald Trump is displayed outside Fox News studios in New York on Nov. 28, 2018. Documents in defamation lawsuit illustrate pressures faced by Fox News journalists in the weeks after the 2020 presidential election. The network was on a collision course between giving its conservative audience what it wanted and reporting uncomfortable truths about then-President Donald Trump and his false fraud claims. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

NEW YORK – It wasn't critics, political foes or their bosses that united Fox News stars Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham when they gathered via text message for a gripe session shortly after the 2020 election.

It was their own network's news division.

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“They're pathetic,” Carlson wrote.

“THEY AREN'T SMART,” Ingraham emphasized.

“What news have they broken the last four years?” Hannity asked.

The Nov. 13, 2020, conversation was included among thousands of pages of recently released documents related to Dominion Voting Systems' $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox for its post-election reporting. Like much of what was uncovered, the exchange ultimately may have little bearing on whether Fox will be judged guilty of libel.

Instead, the material offers insight into how Fox's stars and leadership responded at a time of high anxiety and how giving its audience what it wanted to hear took precedence over reporting uncomfortable truths.

The revelations have bolstered critics who say Fox News Channel should be considered a propaganda network rather than a news outlet.

Yet while Fox's news side has seen the prominent defections of Shepard Smith and Chris Wallace in recent years, it still employs many respected journalists — such as Jennifer Griffin, Greg Palkot, John Roberts, Shannon Bream, Bryan Llenas, Jacqui Heinrich and Chad Pergram.

They're left to wonder whether the raft of recent stories about Fox — from the Dominion documents and from Carlson's use of U.S. Capitol security video to craft his own narrative of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack — will make their jobs more difficult. Will fewer people want to work with them because of the dominance of Fox's opinion side?

Fox says it has increased its investment in journalism by more than 50% under Suzanne Scott, Fox News Media CEO, and usually leads its rivals in ratings during major breaking news stories.

“We are incredibly proud of our team of journalists who continue to deliver breaking news from around the world and will continue to fight for the preservation of the First Amendment,” the network said in a statement.

The post-election period in 2020 offered a stern test. The network's election night declaration that Joe Biden had won in Arizona, ahead of any other news organization, infuriated its viewers. Many were sympathetic to former President Donald Trump's claims of significant voter fraud even if, then as now, there has been no evidence of that.

After she covered a Nov. 19 news conference with Trump lawyer Rudolph Giuliani, then-Fox reporter Kristin Fisher said her boss in Washington, Bryan Boughton, called to say he was unhappy with her report. She said she was told she needed to do a better job of “respecting our audience,” according to documents released in the case.

“I believed that I was respecting our audience by telling them the truth,” Fisher, who now works at CNN, testified in a deposition on the Dominion case.

She later claimed that airtime was taken away from her in retaliation.

Heinrich drew the ire of Fox opinion hosts by tweeting a fact-check on some of Trump's claims. In a text message, Carlson profanely said she should be fired; Fox said she was later promoted to White House correspondent.

“She has serious nerve doing this,” Fox publicity chief Irena Briganti said in an internal memo released among the court papers, “and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted. Her job is to report, not to taunt the president of the United States.”

During a Nov. 14 text conversation, Scott and Lachlan Murdoch, the executive chairman and CEO of Fox Corp., talked about how a Trump rally should be covered on the network.

“News guys have to be careful how they cover this rally,” Murdoch said. “So far some of the side comments have been slightly anti, and they shouldn't be. The narrative should be this huge celebration of the president.”

In another message, he called Fox correspondent Leland Vittert “smug and obnoxious.” Vittert now works at NewsNation.

A week after the election, a Fox Corp. senior executive, Raj Shah, said in a memo that “bold, clear and decisive action is needed for us to begin to regain the trust that we're losing with our core audience.”

Dominion argues, as part of its lawsuit, that nervousness about what its viewers wanted led Fox to air allegations that the voting machine company was complicit in fraud that hurt Trump, even though many people at the network didn't believe them. In his own deposition, Fox founder Rupert Murdoch agreed the election had been fair and it “was not stolen.”

Fox counters that it was airing newsworthy charges made by the president and his followers.

Concern over the Arizona backlash spread to the news division, according to court documents. Fox News anchor Bret Baier said defending the call made him uncomfortable and suggested instead awarding the state to Trump. Roberts also sent a memo saying he’d been getting “major heat” over the decision.

In 2012, Fox stood strongly behind its decision desk when network commentator and veteran GOP aide Karl Rove questioned its correct call that Barack Obama had won in Ohio, essentially assuring him of reelection against Republican Mitt Romney.

In a memorable television moment, Megyn Kelly marched down the hall to hear the decision desk's explanation for why the call was made.

Eight years later, signs of timidity at Fox appeared in the days after its Arizona call. When other news organizations ultimately declared Biden the president-elect on the Saturday morning after the election, Fox waited about 15 minutes.

On Nov. 20, 2020, Rupert Murdoch discussed with Scott in a private memo whether two Washington executives key to the Arizona race call should be fired, saying it would send a “big message” to Trump allies. The executives, Bill Sammon and Chris Stirewalt, lost their jobs two months later.

A Fox spokeswoman characterized the discussions about the Arizona call as part of a typical postmortem that happens after big news events. Despite “intense scrutiny,” Fox stood by its call. Even though Sammon and Stirewalt were forced out, Fox kept consultant Arnon Mishkin, who has run its decisions desk, for the 2024 election.

Scott, answerable to corporate bosses, noted in her deposition that she considered herself a television producer.

“I don't consider myself a journalist,” said the head of Fox News Media. “I consider myself a TV executive. I hire journalists. I hire news people.”

Longtime Fox News Channel chief Roger Ailes wasn't a journalist, either — his background was in politics. To some longtime Fox watchers, though, Ailes recognized that Fox's opinion side drew strength from a solid news side, and he kept stronger barriers between the two.

Some of the information revealed in recent weeks illustrates how, in many ways, Fox has become less of an agenda-setter than an outlet that follows its audience, said Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University professor and author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s.”

To date, no one in Fox management has talked about the Dominion case to its journalists, leaving some wondering whether there is anyone standing up for them, said one Fox journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional retribution.

In a brief filed Friday, Fox said that many of the exhibits that Dominion has introduced were internal communications, “often inflammatory and headline-grabbing, but irrelevant to any issue in dispute.”

“There is some fine journalism still being done at Fox News today,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. She cited the transition of “Fox News Sunday” from Wallace to Bream.

The fallout from the Dominion case, however, leaves open the question of whether Fox journalists will be allowed to do their jobs unconstrained by other forces, she said.

“It would be useful for Fox News, at this point, to make a clear statement that the news division has complete and total autonomy and that a clear line is drawn between it and the rest of Fox,” Jamieson said.

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Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix, Gary Fields in Washington, Jennifer Peltz in New York and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.