The newly released private messages of Fox News stars Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch, and others prove what many on the left have argued for years: that Fox is an entertainment network, not a news network.
The text messages and depositions, revealed in a February 16 legal filing, unequivocally show that the network lied to its viewers for better ratings. What’s more, the gulf between what Fox stars said privatelyand what they broadcast out adds to the growing evidence that the on-air personas of many right-wing stars are largely an act.
The messages were made public in a court filing by Dominion Voting Systems, which is suing Fox for $1.6 billion in a defamation suit. Dominion claims that Fox committed libel by airing segments centered around the company rigging the election for President Joe Biden. The filings expose two key things: that Fox executives knew Donald Trump’s stolen election claims were false while the network continued to push those claims; and they knew that reporting the truth would hurt ratings.
In May 2021, I wrote an article that argued that many influential conservative pundits did not actually believe much of what they said. My evidence was based on what these pundits were forced to admit while under oath. Alex Jones, for example, admittedduring a custody battle that he was merely a “performance artist,” so his on-air comments could not be used against him. Tucker Carlson and Sidney Powell, a Trump lawyer, argued in court that “no reasonable person” should believe what they said—that their statements should not be taken as factual. The messages in the Dominion filing support this position.
Carlson’s texts are particularly revealing. According to the filing, two days after the 2020 presidential election, Carlson grew furious that Fox’s decision desk was the first to call Arizona for Biden. He texted his producer: “We worked really hard to build what we have. Those fuckers are destroying our credibility.” A legitimate news channel, of course, would be more concerned with providing important facts to its viewers than withholding truthful information for fear of lower ratings.
Regarding Trump’s voter fraud claims, messages revealed in the filing show that Tucker “agreed ‘that there wasn’t enough fraud to change the outcome.’” He also deemed Trump attorney Powell, who claimed on Fox that Dominion machines switched votes from Trump to Biden, a “crazy person” who was “dangerous as hell.”
There are plenty of other examples of this hypocrisy in the Dominion filing. Murdoch himself called the election fraud claims “really crazy stuff.” Ingraham, writing about Powell and Rudy Giuliani, who also pushed the claims, said “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.”
Unfortunately, we live in an age when news networks and news shows are expected to be profitable. So it’s reasonable that employees of those networks would be concerned about ratings. But when concerns about ratings and profitability trump a dedication to reporting the truth, then it should no longer be considered a news network.
Fox already has a dubious history as a news organization. In 2012, a study by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that people who only watched Fox News actually knew less about the world than people who watched no news at all. And just last April, a study by two UC Berkeley professors found that Fox viewers were better informed when they switched to CNN for 30 days.
Given all this, one must conclude that Fox is not a legitimate news network. “But its ratings are higher than its competitors,” many will counter. That’s because Fox has spent twenty-five years building up a successful “brand.” But what does that brand consist of? It’s just entertainers and opportunists wrapping themselves in the American flag as they inflame their viewers’ emotions and feed them a worldview they already believe in—regardless of the facts.
This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.