"It was damning": Brian Stelter excavates Fox News' culture, the Big Lie and Tucker Carlson's exit

The media analyst told Salon about reading the Dominion docs, Rupert Murdoch and why Maria Bartiromo is baffling

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published November 14, 2023 12:00PM (EST)

Tucker Carlson and Rupert Murdoch (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tucker Carlson and Rupert Murdoch (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Brian Stelter thought he was finished writing about Fox News after he published “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth,” in August 2020.

That was before Fox News amplified Trump's unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in the wake of his loss to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, smearing Dominion Voting Systems and fellow voting technology company Smartmatic in the process.  

Once Dominion filed its now legendary summary judgment briefs, releasing an array of embarrassing emails, texts and snippets of discovery testimony as pre-trial appetizers, the former chief media correspondent for CNN Worldwide knew there was much more to be written. 

“The thing about court filings is that they are public, yes, but they are not easy to find. They are not easy to digest,” Stelter told Salon in recent interviews. That may contradict the impression given by the selective bombshells highlighted within Dominion’s nearly 200-page filing, which was made public in February of this year.

But Stelter correctly wagered that the "best of the best information," which served as the research backbone for his latest essential read, “Network of Lies: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy” (Nov.14), would provide insight into how Fox News operates.

"I think the text messages between Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham are very funny."

On his computer is a giant two-gigabyte file containing a wealth of material such as emails and texts from the likes of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, along with documented conversations featuring highly influential behind-the-scenes players like Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and a galaxy of series producers.

If one were to assign a page count to the unredacted material Stelter sifted through, the number would be well into the thousands. (Many more redacted documents exist, he said.) But it was all out of order, “like a bunch of papers just scattered around an office,” he explained. “I felt like I could put it all in context, I can put it in chronological order and I could make these public filings actually public.”

The result provides an unprecedented level of insight into the Fox News culture that allowed The Big Lie to flourish. Combined with interviews with dozens of sources, third-party measured data and transcripts of other publicly available speeches and depositions, the book confirms many theories about Fox’s operations and answers one of the biggest lingering questions of 2023: Why did Fox News fire Tucker Carlson?

In our conversation we discussed his findings on what – or rather, who — drives Fox’s “news” coverage, Rupert Murdoch’s abdication of responsibility in allowing his hosts to promote false claims about election fraud, and Fox Business Network anchor Maria Bartiromo’s key role in fertilizing The Big Lie.

The following transcript combines a Zoom interview and a follow-up phone conversation with Stelter conducted on the same day, and has been edited for length and clarity.

There are times when we, as journalists, are reading over notes and transcripts and just laugh out loud at some of the content we encounter. And I realize that you, having written “Hoax,” probably came across some real doozies for that. But how did this compare? You write a lot of humor into "Network of Lies." Was there anything that shocked to you to the point that you had to laugh or just had a very visceral reaction?

I think the text messages between Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham are very funny. These are three multimillionaire right wing media stars who it turns out text like a bunch of kids and talk like a bunch of kids. The same is true for Rupert Murdoch, the way that he uses exclamation points. I definitely had moments that reminded me of Us Weekly's old line, “Stars — they're just like us!"  Because these MAGA media stars act a lot like the rest of us in private.

Well, maybe not the rest of us. They act so immature, they act so selfish, they act so narcissistic, but you see that coming through in a way that definitely was entertaining. 

But I think there's a whole range of emotions when it comes to this story. I couldn't help but think about how exposed these people felt by having their emails and texts published in front of the world. Two pages of my own messages were included in the Dominion documents, the ones that were unredacted. And it was uncomfortable having two pages of my interactions with a source included in the Dominion document dump.

So I wondered how it felt for Fox producers, who were caught up in this. There's that emotion.

The predominant emotion, though, was disappointment and borderline anger. These people in many cases knew better and were trying to sell an audience on something that they themselves didn't believe.

This is a good way to segue into the Tucker Carlson of it all, because this is someone who might have known better, but ultimately, for reasons you spell out very clearly, decided that it was better to secure power, legacy and money. And I think that people will be surprised to learn that the reasons for his firing are strangely enough, pretty much an Occam's Razor situation, in that he really was so awful behind the scenes that management decided it was better to get rid of him. Was that the conclusion that you expected after speaking with sources and combing through all the documents?

Right. Well first, I would say when I researched and reported “Hoax,” my 2020 book about Fox and Trump, I relied on anonymous sources who said things like, “We don't believe this stuff. We just tell viewers to believe it, and the ratings and the profits are the priority.” You know, “We're obsessed with the ratings. We're scared of losing our audience.” Those comments were almost all anonymous.

But now, thanks to the Dominion litigation, all those comments are on the record from various Fox individuals. That's why I felt compelled to write the book. It was as if the anonymous sourcing claims from “Hoax” were now on the record and needed to be shared more widely.

And that's true with Tucker saying that he hated this voter fraud narrative, but he knew his viewers wanted and maybe needed to hear about it. He needed to find ways to appease his audience — or at least he felt he needed to find ways to appease his audience.

When it comes to his cancellation, maybe people tried too hard to figure it out. What I mean by that is, Carlson's allies have pushed various conspiracy theories about why he was canned. And they've been able to do that because Fox never explained why he was canceled. So in that information vacuum, various conspiracy theories have festered.

But as I spoke with people for this book, I heard at least a dozen very clear reasons why Lachlan was no longer willing to tolerate Tucker Carlson. And I concluded that it wasn't just one thing, it was everything.

I have been lucky enough not to have a breakup as bad as this one. But whenever you hear about a really excruciatingly bad breakup in someone's personal life, it's not just one thing. It's 20 things. And yes, maybe there was a final indignity. Maybe there was a final affair. Maybe there was a final betrayal. But the person who does the dumping can spend an hour telling you all the other reasons why it needed to happen. It needed to be done.

"We lack a shared reality in the United States because tens of millions of people are subscribing to Fox’s mirror world."

And that is the Tucker Carlson story. Lachlan Murdoch had so many reasons. There were so many examples of bad behavior, so many scandals. And ultimately, he was hurting the bottom line, because his hour was not nearly as profitable for Fox as it could have been. So again, the money becomes the driving story.

You also mention something in the book that I think people will comprehend but may be shocking nevertheless, which is that Fox really is just letting the audience drive the narrative as opposed to serving the audience by giving them information. Now, to anybody who watches Fox, that's pretty apparent. However, to hear it confirmed by voices from within Fox is pretty damning.

It is damning, and I think it's important for all of us to reckon with. We lack a shared reality in the United States because tens of millions of people are subscribing to Fox’s mirror world. And that mirror world is basically being generated by the audience. It's uncanny . . . it is in one way simplistic, but I do find it confusing to explain because producers wake up and have to program shows. But at Fox, the audience is in control because the producers and hosts are afraid of repelling the audience, afraid of turning the audience off.

I say this as someone who worked in television news for nearly a decade: I never felt those pressures anywhere near the degree that Fox producers feel these pressures. This is unique. It's not that it doesn't happen elsewhere. It's not that “Good Morning America” never thinks about ratings. Of course the producers at “Good Morning America” care about ratings. But they are not programming the show the way that Fox is programming the show: to keep viewers hooked, to keep viewers addicted. And I think partly through the Dominion documents, partly through reporting, partly through observing, there's a lot more awareness of that than there was three or four or five years ago.

I find it fascinating in a way – although I guess it shouldn't be – that it took a civil suit filing to expose all of this about this media empire that otherwise probably would have remained secret. Was that surprising for you?

I learned an enormous amount about Fox through these documents. The network, I don’t I want to say it's shrouded in secrecy, but Fox’s operations are shrouded in secrecy. Let me back up a bit and try this from a different way: The average viewer knows very little about how the news is made, or in the case of Fox, knows very little about how the propaganda is made. What are the relationships between hosts and producers? How do they pick segments? What do they talk about during and after the show? How influential are the ratings? These basic concepts are largely out of reach.

Hosts like Sean Hannity never give interviews to anyone except perceived friends. The executives, like Rupert Murdoch, never submit to questioning. They don't talk about how they do what they do. They don't talk about the consequences of their actions. There's almost no accountability there. There's scrutiny, but there's almost no accountability. The court system is providing this unique form of accountability for The Big Lie. And not just for The Big Lie.

As a media reporter, I've never had a window opened into a media company like this. Just set aside Fox for a minute, set aside the propaganda machine of the network. It is unprecedented to have this inside view. So, you know, there are moments of like, “Aha!” as well as moments of “Ha, ha!” I don't know if that makes sense on the page written down.

It does.

"Maria Bartiromo's continued employment at Fox News is, to me, the biggest mystery of Fox News in the year 2023."

But you know, I find some of the very basic conversations also really revealing. Like Tucker Carlson chatting with one of his producers during the show and him hearing about the social media feedback from the viewers who want to be lied to. They want to be told about fraud that didn't happen. There's a lot of that. And those are the messages that didn't really get attention at the time. There's a lot of those messages that I think provide context and color to what went down in November of 2020.

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There's this notion that The Big Lie began shortly after midnight on election night [in 2020] when Trump declared without proof that there had been massive fraud. But then it was picked up not long after that by [Fox Business anchor] Maria Bartiromo, and that's when Dominion was first mentioned on the air, with words taken directly from an email from a woman named Marlene Bourne. Was that in the Dominion filing?

So this email from Marlene Bourne, this random woman in Minnesota who alleges a vast conspiracy, this email was found by Dominion during the discovery process. It’s very clearly a kooky email, several pages long, full of conspiracy theories and ideas. And the woman admits herself that some of the ideas are quote, “wackadoodle.” She sent this email to Sidney Powell, who was going to be Maria Bartiromo’s guest [on the Nov. 8, 2020 episode of "Sunday Morning Futures"]. Maria Bartiromo also sent it on to Eric Trump, so it reached the Trump family. And this random email became the predicate for the Dominion smear on live TV.

Two things were extraordinary about this. One, Dominion went searching through Fox’s servers looking for all the mentions of Dominion before the smear started. And this email was the only email the Dominions lawyers found.

It was not as if there was some other reliably sourced or vetted information about Dominion. No, it was just one looney tunes email. And of course, that strengthened Dominion’s case because finding that there was only this one single solitary random weird email showed that Fox did no due diligence or fact checking.

Second, and this is the part that I am the most astonished by — Maria Bartiromo seems to read the email out loud on TV almost word for word. I went back and watched the tape. She looks down. She's looking at something off camera as she’s saying these words. Look . . . I was an anchor on cable news for nearly a decade. I was far from perfect. But I knew the rules. I knew the journalistic norms. I knew the difference between a vetted piece of information and a random meme from an email. The idea that some woman's random fantasy about Dominion stealing the election could be read out loud on live TV to millions of people is really damning. And the Dominion lawyers believed it was damning also.

The crazy thing about this is, we saw Lou Dobbs face consequences for his part in all this. Jeanine Pirro faced consequences. Maria Bartiromo is still on Fox Business. Does that seem odd to you?

"The problem with the center right in the United States right now is that there's nothing center about it."

Maria Bartiromo's continued employment at Fox News is, to me, the biggest mystery of Fox News in the year 2023. I have tried to get to the bottom of it and I have been unable. It is a little bit frustrating to finish a book and still feel like there's a piece you don't understand, and Maria is the piece I don't understand. Lou Dobbs was removed very quickly. Jeanine Pirro was, as I describe in the book, demoted. Didn't really seem like it but she was she was. . . . Maria Bartiromo was the only person who has seemed untouchable through all of this, and I don't know why. And I don't have sources who know why. I have come to the conclusion that there is some really interesting reason why she remains in Fox's employ, and I hope one day we find out what it is. Mark me down as baffled.

You talk in the book about Rupert Murdoch's abdication of responsibility. There was a quote that came out of all the Dominion coverage — and I'm going to butcher it — but he said something to be effect of, “At Fox it isn't about red and blue, it's about green.” It was a kind of confirmation of the multibillionaire’s mindset, that they are above politics as long as the money keeps flowing in. But you assert that he has abdicated his responsibility as the head of a major media company.

Yes. I would just make a note that the red and blue and green comment was actually Dominion’s lawyer, who said those words to Rupert, and the Rupert said, “Yes.” And it annoys me because it was the one thing that I think Dominion really misstated in the initial summary judgment filing. But then you realize he's saying, “Yes,” that he agrees with that sentiment. It's just as ugly that Rupert agrees with that sentiment.

I do try to invoke ethics and morality in this book, even though some might say that those words don't belong in a conversation about Fox. Because Rupert Murdoch has children, he has grandchildren – he hopefully wants to leave the world a better place than he found it. And in 2020, he did abdicate his responsibility as the head of the major media company.

The head of a major media company, in my view, should not meddle with real news reporting, but they absolutely must intervene when lies are being spread on the air. And that’s the distinction that we should make very clear. I've worked at the New York Times. I've worked with CNN. For a while CNN was owned by AT&T. I interacted directly with the CEO of AT&T, and in my experience he never meddled with our with our truthful news coverage.

But if CNN hosts in November 2020 had been on the air claiming that Trump won an election he lost – a very damaging claim that led to an insurrection – I would hope that management would have intervened. I guess I'm trying to make the case that a media owner has a responsibility to intervene when clear, provable, traceable damage is being done. And, you know, maybe that's naive of me. Maybe I should expect less of Rupert Murdoch.

No, I don't think it's naive from an ethical perspective at all. If anything, my view is cynical. I expect someone who is so above it all, who isn’t even taking the view from 50,000 feet up but from space, just to look down and say, “Oh, well, if the money's coming in . . .”

I think that is what happened.

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As you know, things are being rebuilt at Fox News. The primetime slot is recovering in the ratings with Jesse Watters in Tucker’s old slot. He is nowhere nearly as vitriolic as Tucker Carlson but is still saying plenty of horrendous things.  What are your insights on that?

Toward the end of the book, I quote an insider saying that Lachlan Murdoch is, “minimizing headaches and maximizing profits.” And I think that explains what we've seen on Fox News this year. Tucker Carlson was a headache. Yes, he was popular, but he was also incredibly polarizing. And there were dozens of reasons to cancel the show. So he's minimizing those headaches and he's maximizing profits. He is tripling and quadrupling down on opinion programming over news. 

. . . Jesse Watters was the way to stabilize the time slot, have fewer headaches, but still give the viewers what they want. Jesse doesn't even claim to be a journalist. It's conservative rage bait entertainment. He is controversial for many reasons, but he's not controversial in the way that Carlson was. Jesse Watters, for example, would not produce a false flag documentary about Jan. 6. So this might sound crazy, but I think in Lachlan Murdoch's mind, he is making the network more center right, which many people would disagree with. But I think in his mind, he's pulling it from the far right extreme of Tucker Carlson to the center right.

Without abandoning the racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia . . .

Well, the problem with the center right in the United States right now is that there's nothing center about it. But I think in his head, that's what he's doing, which, frankly, for Fox News, is probably a winning business calculation.

After Rupert announced he was stepping down, there were all these theories about what would happen. Of course, and this is so ghoulish, but it's true — nothing substantial will happen until he dies. That was one of the lingering questions that I wanted to ask you about. What are your thoughts about what happens then?

So, you know, Rupert Murdoch is 92, not getting any younger. He is officially becoming chairman emeritus this week. Anyone who tells you what's going to happen to Fox Corp. in the future is bluffing. No one knows, including the family members, including the kids. It is a fascinating mystery. The James Murdoch of it all is something I tried to get into in the book. But James Murdoch doesn't talk about his plans for Fox News. He doesn't share his vision with the public. . . . I think we can say one thing pretty confidently, and that is that James Murdoch thinks what is airing right now on Fox News is poison and would like to change the content, would like to change the programming.

James would not turn Fox News into MSNBC. But I think he sees a space for a more reality based, actually center right network. Maybe a network that values journalism a lot more than the current network does. Maybe a network that has more newscasts and fewer propaganda hours. So those are the intentions. Whether he can execute and when are all so unknown, to the point that we might be talking about this a decade from now. Rupert Murdoch's mother lived to be 103.

Oh my God. Without wishing ill on any human being on that front, that is . . . something to contemplate.

But in the meantime, as I was saying, he never submits to questioning. Rupert Murdoch will probably live the rest of his life without confronting these monsters he's helped create. He doesn't feel the consequences. His sleep is uninterrupted. One of the only ways that he will feel the consequences is through these lawsuits. And maybe Smartmatic will fail; we shall see. Maybe the shareholder lawsuits against Fox will also fail. But at least we're seeing one form of potential accountability.

Yeah, and it's taking a green form, which apparently is what Rupert listens to.

“Network of Lies: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy” is out now.



By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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