Even as they were hyping Donald Trump's Big Lie on-air, Fox News hosts knew full well that Joe Biden, not Trump, had won the 2020 presidential election. It's what everyone already suspected, of course, but now it's an irrefutable fact thanks to legal documents filed by Dominion Voting Systems. The ballot machine company is suing Fox News for defamation, after the network repeatedly aired Trump and his allies making false claims that their tabulation machines were "flipping" votes from Trump to Biden. But even as the network aired those lies, text messages show, Fox hosts and executives were talking about how they didn't believe a word of it.
"Sidney Powell is lying," host Tucker Carlson texted to fellow host Laura Ingraham on Nov. 18, 2020. Powell was a regular Fox News guest who was a primary source of Big Lie allegations.
"Sidney is a complete nut," Ingraham texted back. "Ditto Rudy," she added, referring to Trump's attorney and Big Lie proponent Rudy Giuliani.
In another text chain, the two, along with fellow host Sean Hannity, discussed getting a reporter fired for tweeting out the fact that there was no evidence of voter fraud. (The host eventually took down the tweet.) The documents also show extensive chatter from Fox executives indicating that they knew Biden had won, even as they encouraged the Big Lie on-air.
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Fox News, as its name implies, purports to be a journalistic enterprise. As such, these texts should be proof of a massive betrayal of their audience's trust. If this were another cable news outlet like CNN or MSNBC, everyone involved would be fired already, never to work again in the industry. Former New York Times reporter Jayson Blair and former New Republic writer Stephen Glass are famous examples of the career ruin that comes when journalists knowingly pass off lies as fact. And yet, no one expects a single one of these Fox "journalists" to pay for their lies. Worse, no one expects the network to lose a single viewer over it.
To most people, the idea that you "respect" someone by lying to them is nonsensical.
It's not just that Fox News audiences don't care if they're lied to. Lies are what they crave. They tune into Fox News because lies are exactly what they want to hear.
I'm going to indulge for a moment in told-ya-so: I've long written about my view that Republican voters don't really believe the Big Lie, even as they claim they do to pollsters. Instead, I've argued, it's less a sincere belief than a collective lie Republicans tell together, as a power play and a show of tribal loyalty. In other words, Republicans aren't fooled by Trump's claims he "won" the 2020 election. They just think they're in on the con. Yet every time I write about this, I get serious pushback from people insisting that Republicans "really" believe this stuff.
Well, if that were true, then audiences would be angry at Fox News for lying to their faces. That isn't happening, and no one expects it to.
We've been down this road before, after the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection released similar text messages exposing the gap between what Fox News hosts actually think and what they say on-air. In front of cameras, Fox News hosts would claim that the Capitol riot was being orchestrated by "antifa" or the FBI, or they would deny it was violent at all. In text messages, however, they both worried about the violence and blamed Trump for it — all while begging him to call it off.
That Carlson, Hannity, Ingraham and company were knowingly lying to their audiences surprised no one — including, it turns out, their own audiences. Sure, some Trump voters may have never heard about the gap between what their favorite hosts were saying in private and what they said into microphones. But plenty of MAGA voters did hear about it, either by exposure to the mainstream coverage or even on Fox News itself, which aired some of the Jan. 6 hearings. Tellingly, though, none of these folks minded. That's because they think they're in on it. They aren't being lied to by Fox News, in their eyes. They're joining hands with Fox News to tell the lie together.
The recent batch of text messages shows that the Fox News hosts understand that lies are what their audience tunes in to hear. In discussing their errant reporter who made the mistake of sharing a fact on Twitter, Carlson groused, "It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It's measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down." In another text message from Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott to Fox executive Lachlan Murdoch, she writes about "letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them" by escalating Big Lie content. Hannity echoed this language in another text, writing, "Respecting this audience whether we agree or not is critical."
To most people, the idea that you "respect" someone by lying to them is nonsensical. But it makes sense if you realize they aren't trying to deceive their audiences, not really. It's more that they are collaborating with their viewers to prop up the narrative the viewers prefer. Since viewers don't care about the truth, but only about winning at any cost, this is a matter of Fox News respecting their wishes.
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As one former Fox News producer told Brian Stelter for his book "Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth," the viewers "don't care if it's right; they just want their side to win."
It's true that the presence of facts was driving off Fox News viewers. The anger started when the network correctly called Arizona for Biden, cinching the Democrat's presidential win. It deepened in response to Fox reporters who kept saying true things, such as that there was no evidence of fraud or Biden appeared to have won fair and square. This caused viewers to turn the channel to even more unhinged right-wing networks that were even more willing to lie to them. So in order to be competitive, Fox News had to lie more often.
Trump created a permission structure for his followers to assert that reality is whatever they want.
These are the same right-wing audiences who swoon to Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire saying, "facts don't care about your feelings." But, of course, that statement is just another lie. For MAGA, their feelings are all that matter. Truth simply holds no value to them. It's one reason why we can safely describe MAGA as a fascist movement. It's based on an ideology that all that matters is power. Empirical facts are something to be crushed under the MAGA boot. Trump's total lack of regard for the truth doesn't make him an outlier. He's very much the standard Fox News viewer.
This also explains how Florida's Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis turned himself into a right-wing superstar by waging an all-out war on books and education. Most Americans are disgusted by DeSantis' agenda, which includes scrubbing discussion of racism from history class and erasing the fact that LGBTQ people exist. For most people, deliberately lying to students about fundamental truths is grotesque. But for MAGA, it's thrilling. Rewriting reality so that what they want to believe takes precedence over fact is the entire point for them.
"[I]n the eyes of a substantial number of voters, teaching uncomfortable facts is indeed a form of liberal propaganda," Paul Krugman wrote in the New York Times last week. "And once that's your mind-set, you see left-wing indoctrination happening everywhere, not just in history and the social sciences. If a biology class explains the theory of evolution, and why almost all scientists accept it — or, for that matter, the theory of how vaccines work — well, that's liberal propaganda. If a physics class explains how greenhouse gas emissions can change the climate — well, that's more liberal propaganda."
Trump created a permission structure for his followers to assert that reality is whatever they want. If they don't want to believe in the biology of COVID-19, they will reject it, even as some of them are dying from it. If they don't want to believe racism shaped American history, they will simply dismiss any mention as "critical race theory" and fight to keep schools from teaching these basic facts. Deep down inside, however, most of them know that the things they are saying aren't factually correct. Ultimately, it doesn't matter. Truth, Trump taught them, only matters if you say it does. If you insist on your lie loud and long enough, they believe, it becomes better than the truth.
UPDATE: In a statement received after this article was published, Fox News said that despite "a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners ... this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution. ... Dominion has mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context, and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law."