Dominion Voting Systems dropped a bombshell on Thursday night. The election-machine company had filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News Channel in 2021 after the network and its hosts falsely claimed that the company rigged the 2020 presidential election. In a 159-page late-night filing, the company filed its brief in support of summary judgment in their favor.
The brief features a cornucopia of quotes from Fox hosts and executives, which were taken from depositions, emails, and text messages gathered by Dominion during the lawsuit’s discovery phase. They unambiguously show that virtually everyone in Fox’s upper ranks knew the conspiracy theories about the election were false and that the people making them were not remotely credible. This was obvious at the time, of course, but it is helpful for Dominion’s case that so many Fox personnel knew this to be the case and kept on putting it in writing so it could be found later.
What the Dominion filing shows is something more basic: Fox News is a fraud and the people who work for it are, to varying degrees, craven cowards. This was not a situation in which earnest and honest people were tricked or deceived into reporting on conspiratorial nonsense as if it was legitimate. Nor is it about fervent ideologues who willfully blinded themselves into believing the worst about their political opponents. Rather, the texts and emails show that Fox’s top figures knew the election-fraud claims were bullshit and spread them anyway to protect their ratings and market share. They lied to make more money, it’s as simple as that.
The story begins on Election Night with what is, at least in hindsight, one of the most quietly important moments in recent American history. At 11:20 p.m. EST, Fox News’ election desk projected that Joe Biden had won Arizona. Donald Trump had captured the state in 2016, making it the first projected flip of the election. The Associated Press followed soon thereafter. Biden eventually won the state by 10,457 votes.
Within Trumpworld, the response was explosive. Trump’s post-election plans hinged on how votes would be counted. The former president had spent months attacking vote-by-mail options that had proliferated during the pandemic. As a result, it was widely expected that his supporters would disproportionately tend to vote in person on Election Day compared to Biden voters. That led to a situation that analysts described as the “red mirage,” where early Trump leads could eventually become Biden victories once all the mail-in votes were counted. Trump planned to declare an early victory on Election Night and then describe the incoming votes as fraudulent.
But Fox’s Arizona call torpedoed that plan’s viability. Not only had a network forecast that Trump would lose one of the states he had won in 2016, thereby imperiling his Electoral College majority, but it was from the one network that couldn’t be readily dismissed with claims of liberal bias. Trump’s top allies sent blistering messages to Fox owner Rupert Murdoch and many of the network’s top personnel. According to the filing, one Fox reporter told executives “we are taking major heat over the AZ call” and that “our viewers are also chanting ‘Fox News sucks,’ something that I have never heard before.”
Fox had enjoyed unchallenged supremacy in right-wing media circles for more than two decades. The Arizona call appeared to briefly threaten their hegemonic hold as viewers flocked to Newsmax, which was even more willing to tell them what they wanted to hear. (That network is also facing a major lawsuit from Dominion and was recently dropped by DirecTV.) As the loyalty of longstanding viewers seemingly began to fray after the election, Fox’s hosts began to panic. One of Tucker Carlson’s producers texted him that “it’s a hard needle to thread, but I really think many on our side are being reckless demagogues right now.” Carlson, an expert in demagoguery, agreed. “What [Trump]’s good at is destroying things,” he replied. “He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”
Fox News has two primary sources of revenue that both hinge on viewership numbers. Like almost every television network, it charges advertisers to run commercials during its programs. And like every other cable network, it charges cable companies a carriage fee for the right to broadcast its programming. Fox’s large and loyal audience allows it to command high premiums for ad sales and carriage fees. Anything that threatens that audience share—like, say, a rival conservative network that is even more willing to cater to Trump supporters’ beliefs—is an existential risk for the company.
Dominion’s brief is littered with Fox executives and hosts fretting about Newsmax nipping at their heels in the immediate aftermath of the election. “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” Carlson texted in an exchange with one of his producers. “We’re playing with fire, for real … an alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.” One Fox executive claimed that Newsmax had “a strategy across all shows to try to target and steal our viewers,” while another declared that Fox was on a “war footing.”
“There is this RAGING issue about Fox losing tons of viewers and many watching—get this—Newsmax!” Fox anchor Dana Perino texted a Republican strategist on November 11, roughly one week after Election Day. “Our viewers are so mad about the election calls (as if our calls would have been any different. It’s just votes!). So this day of reckoning was going to come at some point where the embrace of Trump became an albatross we can’t shake right away if ever.”
The big hurdle, however, is that what Newsmax was claiming simply wasn’t true. Laura Ingraham texted Carlson and Sean Hannity that Sidney Powell, who was making wide-ranging allegations about Dominion that involved deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, the Italian government, and mysterious spy satellites, was “a bit nuts.” Fox’s own reporters and staffers tried to find any evidence of election fraud or tampering on their own without success.
And yet the pressure remained. “In one week and one debate they destroyed a brand that took 25 years to build and the damage is incalculable,” Hannity fumed to Carlson and Ingraham in a November 12 text. It is not explicitly said who “they” is in Dominion’s brief, but the reference to a presidential debate—where Fox anchor Chris Wallace’s moderator performance had been widely panned—suggests Hannity meant other Fox personnel who had acknowledged Biden’s victory. Carlson replied that it was “vandalism.” Hannity, according to the brief, also raised concerns about a potential rival at Newsmax: “[s]erious $$ with serious distribution could be a real problem. Imho they need to address but wtf do I know.”
Not every Fox host explicitly endorsed the conspiracy theories spread by Trump, Powell, and disgraced former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani. Some, like Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs, welcomed Powell on the show and allowed her to accuse Dominion of election fraud largely unhindered. Others, like Carlson, challenged her to provide more evidence of her claims while privately acknowledging that she had none—a tepid way to passively accept her claims as plausible.
At the same time, Fox’s top personnel also took steps to ensure that the company’s reporters wouldn’t do further damage—which they defined as alienating Trump supporters instead of spreading lies about American democracy—to the Fox brand. In one illuminating incident on November 12, Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich published a tweet fact-checking a recent message by then-President Trump about Dominion that referenced Hannity and Dobbs’s shows on the subject. Citing “top election infrastructure officials,” she wrote that was “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
The response from other Fox figures was apparently volcanic. “Please get her fired,” Carlson told Hannity, according to the Dominion brief. “Seriously ... what the fuck? I’m actually shocked … It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.” The two men told each other that they had vented their rage at company executives, who took note of it and their frustration with Heinrich. “She has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted,” Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott told other executives.
Heinrich deleted her tweet the next day. She remains employed at Fox. It is bad enough to play footsie with conspiracy theories or to simply not report the truth yourself, as Hannity and Carlson and other top Fox hosts did after the election. The retaliation against Heinrich for the simple act of tweeting the truth underscores the depths to which the two men would go to preserve their gilded perches. Fox does not disclose how much its top hosts earn at the network, but it is believed to be in the tens of millions of dollars each year.
Concern about the damage if Fox did not lie about the election came straight from the top. Dominion’s brief recounted one email on November 16 between Murdoch and Scott where Murdoch urged her to read a Wall Street Journal article about Newsmax. “These people should be watched, if skeptically,” he said. “Trump will concede eventually and we should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can.” While it’s not exactly news that Fox is a semiofficial organ of the Republican Party, Murdoch’s email helps clarify things. “We don’t want to antagonize Trump further, but Giuliani [is] taken with a large grain of salt. Everything at stake here.”
That meant not telling viewers the truth. Dominion’s brief includes multiple conversations where Fox hosts and producers excitedly swap viewership numbers for segments where hosts discussed “voting irregularities.” And even as Carlson, for example, declined to debunk Powell’s incendiary claims on the air, he was more candid in private. “Sidney Powell is lying,” he told a producer on November 16, according to Dominion’s brief. “Fucking bitch.” The network also tried to appease MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a prominent election denier who also happened to be Fox’s top advertiser. Dominion claimed that Scott sent him a gift and a handwritten note after he criticized Fox on—where else—Newsmax.
Fox is such a dominant fixture in American political life that some things about it are taken for granted. It’s obvious that Fox is conservative. It’s obvious that Fox is trying to advance right-wing policy goals and hinder anything else. It’s even obvious Fox’s hosts have a troubled relationship with the truth. Fox has even previously argued in court that what Carlson says on his show can’t be believed or taken at face value.
What’s documented in the Dominion litigation is slightly more than that. The company’s brief shows that Fox hosts and reporters will lie, either openly or by omission, for money. That’s all it is. Maybe there are some ideological or political pretensions beneath the whole thing, sure, but even those appear to be secondary to simply making money from a conservative audience that they’ve duped into trusting them. They will lie about American democracy itself if it keeps the cash flowing. They will push the country towards coup attempts and bloodshed for a slightly nicer car or a slightly bigger vacation home. They should never be forgiven for it.