Inside Fox News its hosts, producers and executives speak solemnly about “respecting the audience.” This is the opposite of a truth meter, understan – it describes the network’s insistence on letting the viewers drive its misinformation machine.
We can’t rightly describe this as coverage, because to call it that would imply that Fox News is in the journalism business rather than generating propaganda. As media analyst Brian Stelter determines in his newest book “Network of Lies: The Epic Saga of Fox News, Donald Trump, and the Battle for American Democracy,” Fox News treats its news side as second-class citizens at best, or at worst, traitors.
Much of what “Network of Lies” discovers is more validating than shocking, mainly that Fox News lies to appease its faithful because that’s what they want. Following Joe Biden’s election to the presidency in 2020, the audience wanted coverage of fraud that didn’t exist. So Fox ginned it up.
Revelations from summary judgment briefs related to Dominion’s defamation case establish this as fact, not suspicion. Fox settled with Dominion in April for an astounding $787.5 million, preventing a court case that would have made its executives and on-air talent admit they were aware of the falsehoods they were perpetuating. Giving them oxygen nevertheless was and is good for business.
Dominion also leaked documents to the press that famously revealed, for instance, that its formerly top-rated host Tucker Carlson hated Trump; that Jeanine Pirro’s own producer thought she was “nuts”; and that none of the network’s main primetime hosts took Trump’s former lawyer Sidney Powell seriously.
Unfortunately for democracy, Fox Business Network anchor Maria Bartiromo did – and we’re still living with the ramifications of that today.
Much of this is known. But in “Network of Lies,” Stelter unearths other treasures from the Dominion filings that reveal the extent of toxic partisanship and irresponsibility with Fox.
Here are six of the most significant revelations in the book.
Despite all the criticism concerning Fox News hosts’ antipathy toward fact-based reporting, its Decision Desk, powered by a system developed in partnership with the Associated Press, might be the best in the business.
Even the network’s rivals describe it as “aggressive” but “impressive,” Stelter writes. Fox’s early call of Arizona in Joe Biden’s column on election night exemplifies this. The Decision Desk, using modeling drawn from its Fox News Voter Analysis too (which AP calls VoteCast), outpaced other networks in calling Arizona by a wide margin.
Instead of being proud, Fox had to contend with its viewers and Trump’s team being livid. Lachlan Murdoch and other Fox executives quickly pivoted into “shoot the messenger” mode as digital politics editor Chris Stirewalt went on the air to explain, in the plainest terms, that the math wasn’t lying.
Cut to Friday night, Nov. 6, 2020, when Stelter writes that Stirewalt’s team members Arnon Mishkin and then-DC Bureau managing editor Bill Sammon were ready to call Nevada for Biden, thus handing him the White House. But Fox News president Jay Wallace held them back, giving CNN the honor of being first to project Biden had surpassed 270 to take the White House.
“Decision desks were inherently competitive,” Stelter explains. “Every team wanted to be first. But in this extraordinary case, Wallace believed the audience backlash wasn’t worth the journalistic benefit.” Or as Rupert Murdoch himself said to his son, “[At] least being second saves a Trump explosion!”
Or, for that matter, sixth.
A couple of months after the Decision Desk’s early and accurate Arizona call for Biden on election night, Fox fired Stirewalt and pushed Sammon into retirement. But among the redacted documents was proof that Trump may have placed a target on Sammon’s back six weeks before Election Day.
In a call with Rupert Murdoch, the former president informed Fox’s lord and master, “we have a bad person,” as Murdoch recounted in an email summary to Lachlan and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott.
“Talked a little about a few things but he insisted on talking about our people! Loved twice over Lou Dobbs, loves Hannity, loves Maria B (known her for thirty years), but we have a bad person (do you know him? Sammons [sic]). ‘Hates Trump!’
I didn’t tell him he might be right!”
Among the more shocking details revealed in the court filing was a text chain between Carlson and Hannity expressing disdain for their news side colleague Jacqui Heinrich, who tweeted that top election infrastructure officials, including some in Trump allies, had issued a statement saying “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
Carlson’s reaction of “Please get her fired. Seriously,” was widely reported. But Hannity, ever the MMA wannabe, took his anger a step further, sending Heinrich’s tweet to his producers along with, “Do they not realize I like to fight and the damage I can do here?”
His executive producer Tiffany Fazio’s reaction of “they better get the ‘news division’ under control” underscores the lack of respect Fox News' primetime opinion side has for colleagues who try to practice journalism, as well as the power those hosts hold relative to the news side.
A new civil suit filed this week against Fox News by its reporter Jason Donner, who claims he was targeted after continually raising concerns with his managers about false statements allowed on the air, only bolsters this impression.
Long ago, Bartiromo was a respected financial journalist. The Trump era made her one of the earliest Big Lie believers and more than this, as Stelter points out, “a liaison between Powell and the Trump family.” Even by that standard, her willingness to take the word of a stranger who believes she has been “internally decapitated” and “The Wind tells me I’m a ghost” is simply incredible.
But that is precisely how one loopy email from Marlene Bourne dated Nov. 7, 2020, became the starting point of the infection that led to Fox’s handing nearly a billion dollars to Dominion. Bourne sent her “wackadoodle” (as she herself put it) email to Powell, Lou Dobbs and Judicial Watch wingnut Tom Fitton. A day later Bartiromo and Powell were discussing Dominion on the air, referencing Bourne’s entirely kooky fabrications as if they were scripture.
Stelter’s reporting in “Network of Lies” also shows that Bartiromo repeated sections of the email almost word-for-word. Even worse, as Dominion cited in its filing, she "never reported on the existence of this email."
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If you’re wondering why a massive news organization might allow its prime time hosts to fundamentally operate as if they’re running their own fiefdoms, then some of the lessons taught by “Succession” may have escaped you.
In “Succession” the Roy family is understood to be the stand-in for the Murdochs, but in the limited glimpses we see of how Logan Roy’s news conglomerate works, it’s clear that he leaves day-to-day business operations in the hands of people like Tom Wambsgans so, when things go wrong, he can take the blame. Unless that is, he has someone else to absorb the consequences for him.
This also explains why Scott, who oversaw Fox while Carlson, Lou Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, Bartiromo and other walking liabilities ran amok, is still its CEO.
In Stelter’s view, “Rupert and Lachlan wanted all of the profits from Fox, all the prestige, all the power, but none of the blame.” So, to quote the HBO drama’s tech billionaire Lukas Matsson, Scott became their “pain sponge,” enabling the Murdochs to operate like absentee landlords. House burning down? Need to disappear your top-rated host? Call Suzanne — Lachlan's likely on the other side of the world, and Rupert's mostly retired.
Remember how amazed – delighted, perhaps – we were at reading Rupert Murdoch’s atypically honest admissions in his Dominion deposition that his hosts endorsed false election conspiracy theories, and he could have stopped it, “but I didn’t”?
This was not a matter of Murdoch suddenly growing a conscience or, conversely, demonstrating such total confidence in his wealth that he believed telling the truth would cost him much.
“Network of Lies” posits that Murdoch received “overly rosy” counsel by Fox’s top lawyer Viet Dinh and may have been lulled into thinking he didn’t have to prepare for the brutal barrage to which he was subjected by Dominion’s legal team.
This may be related to Fox’s triumph in a previous defamation suit brought by ex-Playboy model Karen McDougal, who sued the network over Carlson falsely accusing her of extorting Trump on his show. The case came before Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil, a Trump appointee, who sided with the Fox legal team’s argument. She dismissed the case, explaining that Carlson’s commentary qualified as “rhetorical hyperbole” and “opinion commentary” and was therefore “not actionable as defamation.”
That case’s outcome, Stelter posits, “may have lulled Fox’s executives and high-powered lawyers into complacency about future defamation claims. The First Amendment and the ‘hey, who would take any of this seriously?’ defense was always there to protect them, so why worry about a little voting company bashing?”