The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

2 in 5 Republicans want Fox held accountable for false 2020 claims

President Donald Trump is embraced by Rupert Murdoch, executive chairman of News Corp., in New York on May 4, 2017. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

For years, Fox News managed to effectively straddle the barrier between the bizarro world of Donald Trump’s politics and a more reality-focused existence. The network’s coverage and its hosts were sympathetic to Trump’s worldview and also dependent on his supporters, so it was careful to present as a mainstream news outlet without unnecessarily rocking the boat.

After Trump lost his reelection bid in 2020, that became untenable. The network called Arizona for Joe Biden, which it shouldn’t have at the time, infuriating Trump-supporting viewers. Then it called the election for Biden, which it should have — but this further infuriated a viewership that was hearing elsewhere that Trump had actually won and that the results were tainted by fraud. Trump said this, incessantly, but so did networks such as One America News and Newsmax. With other sources offering their Trump-loving base the falsehoods they craved, Fox News could no longer straddle that wall.

This was obvious from the outside, but internal documents, released as part of a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, proves the point. Fox News executives and prime-time hosts were freaked out that there was so much appetite for obviously false claims and, the documents suggest, they erred on the side of feeding that appetite. The alternative was that their viewership would continue to defect and they would fall into the unpopular liminal space in which so many anti-Trump Republicans had taken up residence since 2015.

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Dominion, seeking compensation after its business was repeatedly disparaged on Fox News and Fox Business in those tumultuous post-election weeks, was able to depose Rupert Murdoch, chair of Fox Corp., the networks’ parent company. In that deposition, he admitted that some Fox hosts had endorsed false claims about fraud, testimony that might put Fox at significant risk of losing its fight with Dominion.

New polling from Quinnipiac University published Wednesday indicates that most Americans think it should lose that lawsuit. That’s true of nearly all Democrats, unsurprisingly, given the network’s politics. But it’s also true of 2 in 5 Republicans, with fewer than half of those in the party thinking the network shouldn’t be held accountable.

Even among White people without a college degree, a central part of Donald Trump’s base of political support, most think Fox should be held accountable.

These results should be considered in the context of the question itself, which summarized the case against Fox News succinctly and certainly ungenerously. The network will endeavor to contextualize its actions in the post-2020 election period in court and has repeatedly issued statements casting the lawsuit as a threat to First Amendment protections for the press. This is a compelling argument to other media outlets certainly; we are warier of defamation claims than Americans in general, recognizing how such lawsuits can become a method of intimidating reporters and news outlets. But most media outlets also refrain from sharing claims they know to be false out of fear that their readers or viewers will abandon them. In other words, we are likely at less risk of seeing defamation suits clear the higher bar that applies to media outlets.

It’s probably disadvantageous for Fox News that this is being litigated publicly at this moment. The claims about Dominion’s voting machines — which always ranged from incomprehensible to unfounded — have a much smaller universe of adherents than they did in late 2020. What was once a central part of election fraud theorizing has eroded sharply in the face of countervailing evidence and the antics of the theory’s advocates. With two-plus years of searches yielding no evidence of fraud, claims about the election being stolen have drifted into the theoretical, with Trump supporters pointing at gauzy actions by social media companies as the real way in which the election was shifted. The percentage of Republicans saying there’s concrete evidence of fraud has dipped.

Interestingly, there’s a gulf in responses to the question depending on which leading candidate for the 2024 presidential nomination Republican primary voters support — a gulf that should be a relief to Fox. Among those who plan to vote for Trump, only 31 percent think Fox News should be held accountable. Among those who intend to vote for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (should he run), 44 percent do. Even now, Trump supporters are more loyal to the network.

Presented with a summation of the case against Fox, a population with less robustly considered views of when media outlets should be subject to being sued thinks that the network should be held accountable for its false claims. Granted, the poll doesn’t stipulate that the “accountability” means losing the defamation suit; it could, for example, mean accountability in the sense of reduced viewership or executive turnover. But regardless, even Republicans — the group to whom Fox News had worked so hard to appeal — are statistically divided on whether the network deserves some sort of punishment.

The good news for Fox, of course, is that its track record of skirting accountability for its coverage stands a good chance of remaining intact.