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Exposed: Fox’s Pander-for-Profit Business Model

The Dominion lawsuit reveals how the network truckles for ratings.
February 28, 2023
Exposed: Fox’s Pander-for-Profit Business Model
(Composite by Hannah Yoest / Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Fox News loves to project bravado, but the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit shows how deeply threatened the network is by flimsy, fringe competitors and how executives and hosts talked themselves into dishonestly pandering to viewers to keep ratings and profits up.

A pair of court filings released Monday and last week by Dominion reveals frantic discussions inside the network about losing viewers by correctly calling Arizona for Joe Biden in the 2020 election. Leaders at Fox then hushed truth-tellers and latched on to election conspiracy theories to lure viewers back.

Dominion must meet a high standard to win its $1.6 billion case. But the filings are already proving something significant, beyond the shadow of a doubt: that Fox casually and knowingly feeds its viewers lies.

Dominion has documented how their leading voices don’t believe what they say on the air. How they are afraid to tell you what they really think. Therein lies the peril of Fox’s pander-for-profit model.

The filings tell the story.

Fox fatefully declared Biden the victor in Arizona on election night in 2020 (November 3), ahead of the other networks. As the House January 6th Committee found, the Trump campaign inveighed heavily against Fox for it. But the Dominion filings show for the first time how much angst network leaders felt about reporting that news.

Fox News Senior Executive Vice President for Corporate Communications Irena Briganti acknowledged how their audience reacted to the Arizona call in an email on Saturday, November 7, that read, “our viewers left this week after AZ.”

On November 7, Fox—like the other networks—called the overall election for Biden. But there continued to be a great deal of hand-wringing inside the company about the Arizona call. Around that time, Tucker Carlson texted his producer, “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real….an alternative like newsmax could be devastating to us.” And on November 9, he texted Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott: “I’ve never seen a reaction like this, to any media company. Kills me to watch it.”

Scott quickly flew into action. She kicked up Carlson’s concerns to Fox Corporation Chief Lachlan Murdoch and explained:

Viewers going through the 5 stages of grief. It’s a question of trust—the AZ [call] was damaging but we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.

Scott told Briganti that Bill Sammon, then a senior vice president at Fox and the managing editor of the Washington bureau, did not understand “the impact to the brand and the arrogance in calling AZ,” which she found “astonishing” given that as a “top executive,” it was Sammon’s job “to protect the brand.”

It is worth dwelling on that point for a moment: In his role at Fox News, perhaps Bill Sammon did have a corporate responsibility “to protect the brand,” but in his role as the managing editor of the Washington bureau, he had a higher responsibility—a responsibility to deliver the news in a timely and accurate way, with integrity. Those roles will always have some tension between them. In this case, it’s clear that Suzanne Scott cared little for the integrity of the news side. The same goes for Fox chair Rupert Murdoch: “Maybe best to let Bill go right away,” he said—which would “be a big message with Trump people.” By November 20, Sammon was told his days at Fox were numbered. Two months later, he was axed, along with fellow Decision Desk editor Chris Stirewalt.

So how would Fox, as Suzanne Scott put it, “[let] the viewers know we hear them and respect them”? How would it, as she promised Rupert Murdoch, “make sure they know we aren[’]t abandoning them and still champions for them”?

That plan to do so involved booking guests who could air their election conspiracies. Fox executives defended the practice by saying they were “newsworthy.”

It took a little time for the executives to implement the plan and for others to get up to speed. In the interim, some hosts, like daytime host Neil Cavuto, attempted to cover the election news responsibly, which set off more internal firestorms at Fox.

What happened on the airwaves on November 9 shows how the conflict played out in real time. Trump and his allies continued to spread his lies in a way that was so blatant that Cavuto cut the cameras from Trump aide Kayleigh McEnany’s press conference that day.

Cavuto told viewers, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. . . . She’s charging the other side as welcoming fraud and welcoming illegal voting, unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue showing you this,” and “that’s an explosive charge to make.”

That didn’t go over well behind the scenes.

Dominion’s filings show that Raj Shah—a former Trump White House staffer who by this point was an executive at the Fox Corporation that owns Fox News—labeled Cavuto’s action a “Brand Threat.” Porter Berry, Sean Hannity’s former producer who by this point was running Fox News Digital, looked at Newmax’s ratings and found they were getting a good response from “hitting Cavuto” and “just whacking us.”

CEO Scott once again went into protective mode. She instructed an analyst to “keep an eye” on Newsmax and monitor its ratings. She then flagged the Newsmax ratings for Fox News president Jay Wallace. He took it very seriously:

The Newsmax surge is a bit troubling—truly is an alternative universe when you watch, but it can’t be ignored. . . . Trying to get everyone to comprehend we are on war footing.

The execs weren’t the only ones fuming about the truth-tellers at Fox and scrambling to fend off competitors. So were Fox’s big three primetime hosts. The latest Dominion filing includes new revelations about the group discussions among Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.

In a November 12 group chat, Hannity told Carlson and Ingraham, “In one week and one debate they destroyed a brand that took 25 years to build and the damage is incalculable.” Carlson called it “vandalism.”

Hannity was anxious for the network to work to prevent loonier competitors from taking advantage: “[S]erious $$ with serious distribution could be a real problem. Imho they need to address but wtf do I know.” Carlson replied: “That could happen.”

That night, Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked a tweet from Trump about Dominion, quoting a government statement that said, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

Carlson wanted consequences for Heinrich’s tweet. He texted Hannity:

Please get her fired. Seriously….What the fuck? I’m actually shocked…It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.

Hannity confirmed that he had elevated the issue to Scott and described Heinrich’s tweet as another strike against the network. He summed up their recent woes:

I’m 3 strikes. [Chris] Wallace shit debate[.] Election night a disaster[.] Now this BS? Nope. Not gonna fly. Did I mention Cavuto?

The executives kept tracking the negative reaction Fox truth-tellers were getting from viewers.

On November 13, Shah reported to the executives that there was “strong conservative and viewer backlash to Fox that we are working to track and mitigate.” He said that “[b]oth Donald Trump and Newsmax have taken active roles in promoting attacks on Fox News” and that “[p]ositive impressions of Fox News among our viewers dropped precipitously after Election Day to the lowest levels we’ve ever seen.”

Shah later followed up with more specific metrics, saying, “We are now underwater with our viewers in 3-day tracking, and continue to show declines in 1 and 2-week averages.”

A few days later, on November 18, Ron Mitchell, senior vice president of Fox primetime programming, had an idea. They should take their lead from spurious sources to entice viewers.

He emailed Scott and Wallace about how Newsmax “sourced websites like Gateway Pundit while talking about voter fraud.”

“This type of conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled FNC viewer is looking for,” Mitchell said.

He said the network should

not ever give viewers a reason to turn us off. Every topic and guest must perform. [Fox cannot afford any]“unforced errors” in content—example: Abruptly turning away from a Trump campaign press conference.

The next day, November 19, Trump’s legal team, led by Rudy Giuliani, held a press conference to promote myriad lies. Unlike the McEnany press conference, Fox News did exactly as Mitchell suggested to Fox executives. The network stayed on Giuliani and did not cut away.

A Fox reporter again fact-checked the lies being spread. And just like Heinrich before her, Kristin Fisher was rebuked by her bosses for it.

The Dominion filings also reveal that Fisher got a call from her supervisor and was told (as she recalls it) that the “higher-ups” at Fox News were “unhappy with” her fact-checking of the Trump campaign lies and that she “needed to do a better job of…—this is a quote—‘respecting our audience.’”

Fox anchor Dana Perino also set off the “higher-ups” when she, quite presciently, suggested that baseless allegations Giuliani made during his press conference could provide Dominion a reason to sue.

The Dominion filings state that Perino’s remarks, coupled with Fisher’s fact-checking, caused Scott to start “screaming about Dana’s show and their reaction to the Rudy presser.”

Scott fired off an email about their coverage that said: “[Y]ou can’t give the crazies an inch right now…they are looking for and blowing up all appearances of disrespect to the audience.”

In other emails, Mitchell expressed more sympathy for Fisher and Perino but a similar desire to pander to the election delusions. He wrote:

I’m not mad at either of them. I’m mad at those clowns at the conference who put us in a terrible place . . . those clowns put us [in] an awkward place where we’re going to need to thread the needle.

The idea of “respecting the audience” or “threading the needle” comes up quite a bit in the Dominion filings. Network Chairman Rupert Murdoch similarly testified that he saw it as “trying to straddle the line between spewing conspiracy theories on one hand, yet calling out the fact they are actually false on the other.”

Except that the substantive “calling out” was kept private.

While Fox gave license to its most-watched hosts–primarily Carlson, Ingraham, Hannity, Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, and Maria Bartiromo–to elevate conspiracy theorists and lend credibility to guests such as Sidney Powell, they revealed their true thoughts only to each other.

Around November 18, while Trump and his allies were in the throes of promoting his lies, Carlson told his producer Alex Pfeiffer: “Sidney Powell is lying. Fucking bitch.” Carlson told Ingraham, “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane.”

The filings show that Ingraham responded: “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.” Carlson replied: “It’s unbelievably offensive to me. Our viewers are good people and they believe it.”

But Fox still put Powell, Trump, Giuliani, and guests who said similar things on the air and declined to rebut their claims. Dominion says it flooded Fox with over 3,600 separate communications asking them to cease smearing their company. The requests went unheeded.

On December 2—six weeks before they were fired—Bill Sammon discussed Fox’s “supposed election fraud” with his colleague Chris Stirewalt and concluded, “It’s remarkable how weak ratings make[] good journalists do bad things.”

They got steamrolled as Trump continued to spread his election lies through December 2020 and early January 2021; Fox continued to go along with it all, giving its viewers the false hope that the election could somehow be overturned.

Perhaps sensing something bad was on the horizon, Rupert Murdoch told Scott on January 5 that

it’s been suggested our prime time three should independently or together say something like ‘the election is over and Joe Biden won,’ [which] would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election [was] stolen.

Scott forwarded the email to Fox News Executive President for Primetime Programming Meade Cooper, stating, “I told Rupert that privately they are all there—we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers but they know how to navigate.”

When it came to their viewers’ sensitivities, Fox did, indeed, play it carefully. No statement went out.

So the big names at Fox did not issue that authoritative refutation of what Murdoch himself called the “Trump myth.” And the next day, motivated by the very lies Fox promoted, Trump’s mob stormed the Capitol.

After the insurrection, it appears that Rupert Murdoch felt uncomfortable about the gap between what Fox hosts believed and what they told viewers.

He told Scott that it was “All very well for Sean [Hannity] to tell you he was in despair about Trump but what did he tell his viewers?”

But even then, Fox didn’t change its ways.

Rather than tell the truth, the network pivoted to promoting even more lies about how Antifa had actually invaded the Capitol on January 6th, injured police officers were “crisis actors,” and well-meaning Trump supporters were set up by the “deep state.”

After Sammon and Stirewalt were shown the door for correctly calling Arizona, and others were chastised for demonstrating similar basic journalistic ethics, Kayleigh McEnany, whose November 9 White House presser alleging fraud had so alarmed Cavuto that he cut away from it, was welcomed as a new on-air paid talent. Since April 2021, she has co-hosted a talk show for the network.

Kristin Fisher left her job as Fox White House correspondent in May 2021 and is now a space and defense reporter at CNN.

Also in 2021, Fox would deploy resources to allow Carlson to produce an unhinged documentary titled Patriot Purge, which depicted jailed January 6th rioters as being unfairly targeted, prosecuted, and imprisoned for their political beliefs.

And now, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy is giving Carlson exclusive access to footage from the riot to create even more content.

It all seems like good business for Fox, which is why Murdoch has embraced it.

After the riot, Fox courted election conspiracist Mike Lindell. Scott sent him a personal note and a “gift,” which the MyPillow founder claims to have never received. Scott also told shows to put him on air because he would “get ratings.”

Dominion’s lawyers asked Rupert Murdoch why they gave Lindell this special treatment, and Murdoch said that Fox makes a lot of money from the commercials Lindell buys to promote his products. He testified, “The man is on every night. Pays us a lot of money.”

“It is not red or blue,” Murdoch said. “It is green.”

Jury selection for Dominion’s case is scheduled to begin in April. Given the high standard to prove defamation, even with Dominion’s strong case, no one can predict whether the company will win. But there is no question of Fox’s fundamental deceit, which is now coming fully into view because Dominion has the legal standing, deep pockets, and temerity to fight its case.

Fox routinely commits similar smears against other targets who lack the resources to pursue similar recourse. And while the company is protecting its own interests, not fighting purely for the sake of American democracy, it’s also true that by defending itself, Dominion is challenging Fox’s pander-for-profit business model. That model has many imitators—so many that Fox is constantly worried it will lose its grip on its audience.

There’s a big market for media that lies to its audience under the guise of reporting the news. This case will decide, in part, whether those media put themselves at risk by embracing contempt and deception as a ratings strategy. Regardless of the outcome, the filings show how cynical the model is.

Correction (March 2, 2023, 10:30 a.m. EST): Demonstrating a charming sense of irony, a spokesperson for Fox News reached out to request two minor factual fixes in this article documenting Fox News’s own appalling pattern of factual untrustworthiness. First, we are happy to note that Irena Briganti is not a senior vice president but rather a senior executive vice president at Fox News. And second, when Fox host Dana Perino mentioned the possibility of a Dominion lawsuit on November 19, 2020, she was not speaking directly about Fox being sued but about a potential suit against those voicing the false allegations regarding Dominion; you can see her remarks here. The article above has been slightly modified to reflect these facts.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.