Opinion 5 insights from the Dominion-Fox News document dump

This combination of photo shows Laura Ingraham, host of "The Ingraham Angle" and Sean Hannity, host of "Hannity" on Fox News. (AP)
6 min

Perhaps Fox News now wishes it had settled?

On Tuesday, an avalanche of exhibits hit the public docket in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News in March 2021. The complaint cited a plume of Fox News coverage — heavy on appearances by pro-Trump lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani — blaming Dominion, a provider of voting technology in the 2020 elections, for playing a role in flipping votes from President Donald Trump to Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

Two years after the filing, the process is hammering Fox News. A Feb. 16 Dominion motion for summary judgment excerpted documents showing that Fox News executives, in private messages and emails, ridiculed the stolen-election claims that drew credulous coverage on the network — and were bundled with conspiracy theories about Dominion and Smartmatic, another voting technology company. A state of panic descended on the network when it realized that truthful coverage of the November 2020 election was pushing viewers to more extreme competitor Newsmax. Those who provided factual coverage — and debunked the nonsense about Dominion and election theft — found themselves under siege.

The hundreds of exhibits deepen the picture of a corrupt news media outlet. Some insights from the documents:


The coastal media elite is headquartered at Fox News

Watch a bit of prime-time Fox News programming, and you’ll come away with the notion that media organizations other than Fox News are managed by self-dealing elites who conspire to poison American society. Messages exchanged among the top three Fox News hosts — Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham — prove that these folks might be projecting just a bit.

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Nearly two weeks after the November 2020 election, the exhibits show, the powerful nighttime trio was messaging about the network’s post-election coverage problem. Worried that too many facts would keep driving away viewers, the hosts took to gossiping about colleagues reporting the truth. Carlson texted a link to a Daily Beast article by reporter Justin Baragona noting that news-side host Eric Shawn had fact-checked the network’s own coverage. That tidbit touched off a round of snark regarding veteran news-side host Chris Wallace as well as suggestions that public relations chief Irena Briganti had coordinated the Baragona story; Baragona tweeted on Tuesday night that she had done no such thing.

Ingraham’s message? “I think the three of us have enormous power. We have more power than we know or exercise. Together,” she wrote in three separate posts.


No good deed went unpunished

In the days following the call by Fox News and other networks that Biden had won the presidential election, Fox News host Sandra Smith took a rotation in the media limelight. Video surfaced of Smith, a daytime news-side host, at the network, scoffing in real time at claims by a Fox News guest that “just because CNN says or even Fox News says that someone is president, doesn’t make them president.” In a clip that circulated on Twitter, Smith warns colleague Trace Gallagher off-air as the interview is proceeding, “What? What is happening? Like, Trace, we’ve called it.”

On Nov. 11, Briganti sent colleagues an email including a link to commentary in American Thinker criticizing Fox News for its “betrayal.” She wrote, “They are an influential site on the right and this is worth a read to understand the severe damage that Sandra did with the hot mic smugness and snickering.” Also known as doing your job.

Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott expressed concern in an email of her own: “Has Sandra addressed this? This impacts her relationship with the viewers — its a question of trust and respect.”


Sean Hannity was running ‘scared’

Nearly a week after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot, Paul D. Ryan, former speaker of the House and board member of Fox Corp., emailed Rupert Murdoch an article from conservative site the Dispatch: “The Alternate Reality Machine,” about how Fox News and other outlets propagated misinformation about the riot. Murdoch responded, “Wake-up call for Hannity, who has been privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers!”

The intrepid-appearing Hannity? Scared?

What this means, in effect, is that night after night in the weeks following the November 2020 election, Hannity was faking it. Effectively, too: In December 2020, the Erik Wemple Blog compiled an A-to-Z guide of all the election-denial boosterism that Hannity aired during this period. It was voluminous, often incorporating input from then-White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who would later join the network as a commentator.

We know from the filings that people at Fox News lied about the facts; they knew that the stolen-election claims were bunk but kept circulating them anyway. Murdoch’s disclosure suggests another level of dishonesty, however — that the network also betrayed a gut feeling about Trump. Again, just for audience retention.


Murdoch’s prediction about Fox News viewers: ‘They’ll return.’

Murdoch launched Fox News in 1996 and guided it through hundreds of content scandals as well as the monster sexual-harassment scandal of Roger Ailes, who managed it until 2016. The scandal rigmarole commonly goes something like this: A Fox News personality says something stupid; mainstream media organizations write up the remarks and attach condemnations; Fox News either declines to comment or issues an excuse/apology for extreme cases; ratings continue an inexorable climb.

With those lessons perhaps in mind, Murdoch on Sunday, Nov. 8, emailed Scott to say:

Getting creamed by CNN! Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it. Hard enough for me!
They’ll return. (Not for Chris Wallace!).
Laura Ingraham very good and gracious.
Anyway, football today!

Hannity: Network’s news side ‘breaks no news ever’

Relations between Fox News’s “news side” and the propagandists from its opinions team have long been strained. Legendary host Shepard Smith, for example, bolted Fox News after clashing with Carlson.

It’s hard to see things improving in light of a Hannity-Ingraham-Carlson text chain from Nov. 13, 2020, as revealed in the Dominion exhibits. “Guys, I’ve been telling them 4 years,” writes Hannity to his pals. “News dept that breaks no news ever.”

Ingraham: “I don’t want to be liked by them.”

Carlson: “They’re pathetic. [That’s] why they’re so angry.”

The exchange points to a lack of self-awareness among the opinion anchors, who might want to consider that their penchant for propaganda renders almost impossible the newsgathering efforts of their colleagues on the other side of the wall. Who, after all, wants to entrust their hot news tip to this organization?

For its part, Fox News issued a statement regarding the latest filings: “Dominion has been caught red handed using more distortions and misinformation in their PR campaign to smear Fox News and trample on free speech and freedom of the press. We already know they will say and do anything to try to win this case, but to twist and even misattribute quotes to the highest levels of our company is truly beyond the pale.”