The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Revealing Fox News texts point to the right’s long war on the truth

Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity. (AP Photos)
4 min

Not long after Fox News correctly called the 2020 presidential election for Joe Biden, a senior Fox Corp. executive privately lamented that the network’s brand was “under heavy fire from our customer base.” The executive suggested Fox viewers might “feel like they have been somehow betrayed.”

This fear — that viewers might see telling the truth about Donald Trump’s loss as betrayal — was widespread inside the network, according to newly released texts among Fox News figures. In the texts, they fumed that candor about 2020 was driving the audience away, prompting viewers to defect to competitors who offered a more comforting cocoon. On the air, some of those personalities kept doling out what they privately admitted were lies.

This is one of the most extraordinary scandals to ever buffet a major American network. But it also points to an even bigger story: The right wing media’s long war on the truth. For decades, conservative media outlets have expressly sought to build and capture an audience that would accept only their version of events, and would be cordoned off to place them beyond the reach of mainstream news sources entirely.

“Right wing media have been engaged in a 70-year project to ensure that their audiences only trust conservative news outlets,” Nicole Hemmer, who tells this story in “Messengers of the Right,” her excellent history of conservative media, told me. “They’ve worked to discredit other sources of more-objective information, so that their audiences are unwilling to trust outlets more rooted in reality.”

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The success of this project is illustrated by the texts, which were released as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation suit against Fox News. For instance, the network’s accurate call of Arizona for Biden came in for special fury among hosts Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, as The Post reports:

“We are all officially working for an organization that hates us,” Ingraham wrote in one text thread with Carlson and Hannity.
In another, in mid-November 2020, as they watched Fox viewers flip to more conservative upstart channels, Ingraham wrote to the group, “My anger at the news channel is pronounced.”

In short, the hosts saw the truth as a threat to their hold on their viewers.

This bid to capture millions in a bubble of falsehoods was also acknowledged by the news side, when a top news editor called the constant lying an “existential crisis” for Fox News ’s journalism. But as Matthew Gertz of Media Matters notes, the prime-time personalities had a clearer read than the news operation on the real source of Fox News’ success: its role as a “propaganda machine that accumulates money and power by lying to its viewers.”

Hemmer traces the genesis of this broader ideological project to the late 1940s and early 1950s. At the time, she tells me, leading figures on the right made a concerted decision to “create their own media outlets” in the form of periodicals such as Human Events, while spreading “the message that all nonconservative media are deeply biased.”

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This intensified during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, who turned Vice President Spiro Agnew loose to make snarling speeches attacking the television networks, which were growing in power. The Nixon administration promoted a 1971 book, “The News Twisters,” which “purported to be a statistical study” of media bias against Nixon, Hemmer says.

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The influence of right-wing media intensified in the late 1980s with the explosion of talk radio. This capture of conservative audiences was aided, Hemmer notes, by the success of Rush Limbaugh and others who made the message about biased mainstream news “entertaining and profitable.”

Enter Fox News, which was founded in the mid-1990s and attained its commanding heights in the right-wing information ecosystem in the early 2000s. Behind Fox News’s “We report, you decide” slogan, Hemmer says, lurked its real message: “You should trust us, and not other outlets.”

That message worked, and the scandal is, in a way, the result of right-wing media’s grip on its audience. In late 2021, polling data showed that consumers of Fox News and other conservative media were overwhelmingly more likely to believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. This came after those sources relentlessly bombarded their viewers with that message.

But now the audience’s captivity to an alternate version of events is blowing back on Fox News. Over the years Fox News’s audience has rebelled over other things, Hemmer recounts, such as Hannity’s championing of immigration reform, which incited a backlash from his viewers.

Nothing, however, has compared to the current scandal. “It’s a pretty clarifying moment,” Hemmer told me. The network’s own personalities, she concluded, have now admitted that “we have to tell our audience not what happened, but what they want to hear, or we’re going to lose them.”