© Sara Morris Photography

How Fox and Murdoch are destroying US democracy

After the 2020 election, Fox News gave airtime to an outright fiction: that Biden had stolen the presidency. As the company is sued over what it broadcast, legal documents reveal how far the Murdochs will go to keep America’s biggest channel on top
April 5, 2023

Television is not a gimmick, and, if you think it is, you’ll lose again.” So said Roger Ailes—the 27-year-old executive producer of the syndicated Mike Douglas Show—to Richard Nixon in the autumn of 1967. While waiting to be interviewed by Douglas, Nixon had been grumbling about the triviality of the medium.

So struck was the Republican presidential contender by the young man’s audacity that he hired Ailes as his television strategist more or less on the spot. The next year, eight years after his defeat by John F Kennedy, Nixon went on to win the GOP nomination and the presidency.

Ailes, for his part, continued to be a hugely influential adviser in Republican politics and subsequently a force to be reckoned with in the television business. In 1996, believing there was a conservative audience just waiting to be served by a cable channel in tune with their instincts and beliefs, he and Rupert Murdoch founded Fox News. It fast became the market leader, a political phenomenon and a cultural juggernaut.

More than half a century since Ailes’s first encounter with Nixon, Fox faces its most serious challenge to date—greater than the sexual harassment scandals that forced out its star host Bill O’Reilly in 2017 (and Ailes himself the year before). For Murdoch, the 92-year-old -Australian-American media tycoon and owner of the Times, Sunday Times and the Sun, it is an even greater embarrassment than the phone-hacking scandal that led to the Leveson Inquiry of 2011 and 2012.

Along with its parent company, Fox Corp, Fox News is being sued in Delaware for $1.6bn by the company Dominion Voting Systems, which claims systematic defamation by Fox in its coverage of the 2020 presidential election.

The cable channel also faces a separate $2.7bn defamation lawsuit brought by the election technology provider Smartmatic over similar allegations of vote-rigging and fraud. But what sets the Dominion case apart are the thousands of pages of emails, texts, WhatsApp messages and depositions that have already been released. These shed unprecedented light on the innermost workings of a powerful news network and its handling of an extraordinarily intense political controversy: the 2020 race between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, and the entirely fictitious but remorseless claims by the defeated Republican and his team that the election had been stolen. 

When such tranches of documents drop, reporters begin a frantic search for the smoking-gun line or data point that might help them land a big news story. In the case of the Dominion files, almost every item includes at least one newsworthy revelation, some of them astonishing: as dossiers go, it is more like a smoking armaments room. (Full disclosure: I was among those hacked by Murdoch’s now-defunct Sunday tabloid News of the World—though, to the confusion of some, I also offered a character reference for Andy Coulson, its former editor, at his trial in 2014. I was also happily employed at the Times between 1991 and 1995.)

The irony is that Fox’s shameful showcasing of Trump’s “Stop the Steal” narrative was preceded by a moment of journalistic triumph. Keen to outstrip his competitors, Murdoch had backed a new voter survey system developed at the University of Chicago for Fox and the Associated Press, which he believed would enable the network to call the presidential race, state by state, faster and more accurately than rival networks.

At 11:20pm on election night, Tuesday 3rd November, Fox’s Decision Desk, overseen by Arnon Mishkin, declared that the key state of Arizona would be won by Biden, giving the candidate 11 of the 270 electoral college votes he needed to become the 46th US president.

In making this early and confident call, Mishkin and his team turned out to be spot on. The other networks, it should be noted, did not project a winner in Arizona for nine days. 

Predictably, the Trump team went ballistic, inundating senior executives at Fox with furious calls and texts. In his deposition in the Dominion case, Murdoch recalls: “My friend Jared Kushner [Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser] called me saying, ‘This is terrible’, and I could hear Trump’s voice in the background shouting. And I said, ‘Well, the numbers are the numbers.’”

It should have been a triumph: Arnon Mishkin, who ran Fox’s Decision Desk, made the early call that Biden had won the key state of Arizona It should have been a triumph: Arnon Mishkin, who ran Fox’s Decision Desk, made the early call that Biden had won the key state of Arizona

As the temperature soared, the documents reveal, Murdoch’s elder son, Lachlan, the CEO of Fox Corp, discussed the possibility of retracting or qualifying the call for Arizona with Suzanne Scott, the CEO of Fox News. Murdoch junior also thought he had better run the matter past his father, who was not minded to back down. (According to Michael Wolff’s book Landslide, Rupert, who had grown increasingly exasperated by Trump’s antics and demands, merely said: “Fuck him.”)

Here, then, was the arch-conservative network and its arch-conservative proprietor apparently standing up for Fox’s reporters and analysts in the face of Trump’s raging id. A victory for journalistic standards and integrity over ideology and personal aggression? Not so fast.

What followed is a plotline that might have been dreamt up in the writers’ room of the HBO hit series Succession: a hyper-modern parable of post-truth and propaganda in which conventional news values were shredded to appease ideology and to safeguard profit; and in which the competing priorities of reporting, entertainment, tribalism and business collided with terrible consequences; in which flagrant lies were broadcast day after day by so-called “journalists” who knew full well that what they were serving up was outright fiction. 

The lies these karaoke presenters repeated and endorsed again and again undoubtedly contributed to the fissile political context that spawned the storming of the Capitol building in Washington DC. The “Stop the Steal” riot on 6th January 2021 resulted in five deaths and hundreds of injuries, including at least 140 police officers. Even after the disorder, eight Republican senators and 139 Republican representatives voted to challenge the election result.

The day before, as protesters descended upon the city, Scott and Rupert Murdoch discussed the idea of the network’s star hosts, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, issuing a statement declaring once and for all that “the election is over and Joe Biden won”. As Scott put it to her boss, “privately they are all there” but “we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers”. No such statement was issued, even as the countdown to disaster at the Capitol ticked away.

Murdoch certainly understood that Fox was “uniquely positioned to state the message that the election was not stolen”. Could he have intervened to stop the lies? As he later admitted under oath: “I could have. But I didn’t.”

To go back to the beginning: the Arizona call should have been hailed as an example of fast, accurate, robust journalism. But that was of no consequence to many thousands of Fox viewers, Trump loyalists and true believers in the cult of Make America Great Again, who were disgusted by what they saw as the network’s wicked treachery. 

They called in to complain. Worse, they switched to conservative channels that were staying loyal to Trump: Newsmax, the cable news and digital channel founded by Chris Ruddy in 1998, and One America News Network (OANN), a small-scale, hard-right platform established in 2013. On 4th November, the Fox hierarchy began to wobble. Raj Shah, senior Fox Corp vice president and Trump’s former deputy press secretary, warned Lachlan Murdoch and Viet Dinh, chief legal and policy officer, that there was already “lots of conservative criticism of the AZ call”. The following day, Shah emailed Dinh to underline his anxiety that, if the network were to declare Biden the winner, “We’re going to get hit very hard by the right.”

Also that day, the Fox presenter closest to Trump, Sean Hannity, claimed in his 9pm programme that “it will be impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results, that’s a fact”. There was no basis for such an assertion. But it kept Hannity loosely aligned with the president (who had already declared himself the victor and spoken with rage about “a major fraud in our nation”).

Murdoch himself had yet to shift from his view that the game was up and it was foolish to pretend otherwise. In an email to Col Allan—the former editor of the tabloid New York Post, another Murdoch-owned enterprise—he wrote that: “With several states now disappointingly favoring Biden [it is] hard to claim foul everywhere”, adding that much of what Trump was saying was “bullshit and damaging”.

On 6th November, he told Scott that: “Everything seems to be moving to Biden and if Trump becomes a sore loser we should watch Sean [Hannity] especially and others don’t sound the same. Not there yet but a danger.” The next day, Fox followed every other major US network and declared Biden the president-elect.

Bad news: Sean Hannity, who was aligned to Trump, claimed that it would be “impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results” © Evan Agostini / Invision / AP / Shutterstock Bad news: Sean Hannity, who was aligned to Trump, claimed that it would be “impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results” © Evan Agostini / Invision / AP / Shutterstock

This was vintage Murdoch: the news mogul who famously backed winners and distanced himself from the defeated; who dumped the Conservatives for Tony Blair in 1997. He hadn’t wanted Biden to win—he’d backed Trump. But it was absolutely clear that the Democrat candidate had done so and that Fox News, whatever its political inclinations, had to recognise that reality. Didn’t it?

The trouble was that “reality” was now a contested term. In the post-truth era, you chose your own reality, your own “alternative facts”, as Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s then counsellor, had famously put it in January 2017. 

Many of the defeated president’s diehard supporters—Fox’s base audience—were uninterested in statistics, scoreboards and forensic argument. They trusted their instincts to steer them away from supposedly “fake news” and towards stories that felt true. They simply refused to believe that their political hero could lose to a has-been like Biden; and therefore resented bitterly any network or news platform that claimed that Trump had indeed been beaten. 

If Murdoch didn’t like this, he had only himself to blame. For more than 20 years, he had indulged Ailes’s dream that television networks would replace political parties and that Fox could become the hub of a national movement at the centre of US democracy. He had allowed opinionated presenters such as Hannity (who had been at Fox from its launch), Carlson, Ingraham and (before his disgrace) O’Reilly to eclipse the network’s more conventional newsroom. 

Like the Sackler family at Purdue Pharma with OxyContin, the Murdochs had insidiously encouraged America to become addicted to the opioid of an unyielding conservatism that often strayed into conspiracy theories and outright lies about progressive politicians. Now, in the wake of a bruising election, that mob of addicts wanted their fix and were furious that the main dealer—Fox News—seemed to have shut up shop.

As Arlie Russell Hochschild writes in her brilliant account of the community in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Strangers in Their Own Land, voters faithful to the right-wing Tea Party movement had come to view Fox as “family” well before Trump’s election in 2016. The network told its predominantly white working-class audience “what to feel afraid, angry, and anxious about… it was often Fox News that was digested along with dinner”. It fed them what Hochschild calls their “deep story”.

* * *

If there is an identifiable pivot point in this saga, it was Maria Bartiromo’s morning show on Sunday 8th November. Bartiromo was a friend of Trump, a disciple who had defended him in the wake of the racist riots in Charlottesville in August 2017. What she needed now was a script. Trump’s diehard advisers provided her with one.

Borrowing from deranged online rumblings in the QAnon community, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, a former federal prosecutor turned conspiracy theorist, alleged that Dominion’s machines had deleted millions of votes for Trump and substituted them with ballots for Biden—all supposedly at the behest of an ill-defined group of plotters that, at various points, included George Soros, the Clintons, China and just about anyone else whom the right considers hostile to patriotic Americans.

On Bartiromo’s show, Powell alleged that Dominion’s machines had “used an algorithm to calculate the votes that they would need to flip”. Thus did a wild and unfounded conspiracy theory enter the mainstream of post-election coverage.

In a sweat: Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, inaccurately claimed that Trump had won a landslide © Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images In a sweat: Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s attorney, inaccurately claimed that Trump had won a landslide © Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

This was the first of nine appearances Powell made on Fox in November alone. Lou Dobbs, a vociferous supporter of Trump, followed Bartiromo’s lead eagerly on his own show. On 12th November, Giuliani claimed to him (falsely) that Dominion was owned by Smartmatic, “formed really by three Venezuelans who were very close to—very close to the dictator [Hugo] Chavez of Venezuela and it was formed in order to fix elections”.

At his deposition, Dobbs admitted that he had known about Dominion’s rebuttals of these outlandish assertions and was fully “aware of what they were saying about the allegations”. Yet he had conspicuously failed to mention any of this to his viewers, choosing instead to endorse Giuliani’s “stunning” disclosures and to congratulate him for “pursuing what is the truth”. 

The on-air campaign gathered pace. On Jeanine Pirro’s show, Justice with Judge Jeanine, on 14th November, Powell repeated the lie that the Dominion system “was created for the express purpose of being able to alter votes”.

Barely a day went by without Giuliani or Powell being interviewed, with little or no pushback. As for the network’s most famous hosts: on 17th November, Carlson did at least challenge Powell to “prove [her allegations] very soon”. But, astonishingly, as late as 26th January, Carlson was still giving airtime to the wildly pro-Trump CEO of MyPillow, Mike Lindell, to repeat the falsehoods about Dominion and the fictitious “steal”.

Hannity, for his part, kept the narrative alive to the satisfaction of his embattled alter ego in the White House. On 13th November, Trump posted a tweet, urging his 88m followers to watch “----@seanhannity takedown of the horrible, inaccurate and anything but secure Dominion Voting System which is used in States where tens of thousands of votes were stolen from us and given to Biden”.

Fox’s defence in this case rests on its insistence that the allegations were “newsworthy”: the US president and his representatives were claiming systematic electoral malpractice, after all. That might be so. But US defamation law does not protect speech that reflects “actual malice” by an individual or group “knowing or recklessly disregarding the truth”.

As one would expect in a legal culture so respectful of the right to free speech, this is a high jurisprudential bar. Yet Fox seems to have cleared it, and then some. What the Dominion files reveal, shamingly, is that everyone at the network, from Murdoch downwards, knew perfectly well that the allegations were fabricated. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security, kept telling them so. Dominion, whose staff were by now receiving death threats, sent 3,682 rebuttal emails to Fox recipients. They chose to ignore them. 

In his deposition, Hannity admitted that “the whole narrative that Sidney [Powell] was pushing, I did not believe it for one second… nobody ever convinced me that their argument was anywhere near accurate or true”. 

On the night before Bartiromo’s first show featuring Powell, Carlson said that the “software shit is absurd”. A week later, on 15th November, Ingraham wrote to Carlson and Hannity that “Sidney Powell is a bit nuts”. The next day, Carlson told his producer that “Powell is lying. Fucking bitch.” Dobbs’s producer, John Fawcett, said he thought she must be under the influence of “cocaine and heroin and shrooms”.

Chemically challenged or not, Powell was clearly talking nonsense. Her principal anonymous “source”, after all, claimed in an email that she had been in dialogue with “the wind”. She also said she had been “internally decapitated, and yet, I live”. 

To be clear: on the basis of this mystery source’s lone testimony, Powell challenged the validity of the entire presidential election. Even Trump and what remained of his team eventually disavowed her. But not Fox, where Dobbs in particular remained Powell’s champion.

* * * 

On 19th November, after a press conference in Washington at which Giuliani—sweating profusely, his black hair dye dripping down his face—had repeated the lies about electoral fraud, Murdoch himself told Scott that the allegations were “terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear. Probably hurting us too.”

The next day, Shah contacted a member of Carlson’s team expressing concern about an affidavit being offered by Powell: “This stuff is so fucking insane. Vote rigging to the tune of millions? C’mon.”

Yet Shah, a veteran of Trump’s White House and now the in-house guardian of the Fox News brand, was also warning Lachlan Murdoch and Viet Dinh that “bold, clear and decisive action is needed for us to begin to regain the trust that we’re losing with our core audience”.

Laura Ingraham: “Sidney Powell is a bit nuts” © Brian Cahn / Zuma Press Wire / Shutterstock Laura Ingraham: “Sidney Powell is a bit nuts” © Brian Cahn / Zuma Press Wire / Shutterstock

To decode: the conspiracy theory was absolute nonsense, an affront to the most basic journalistic standards. But after the furious viewer response to the Arizona call, the network was anxious not to further upset its indignant base, which was lapping up these claims of electoral fraud and an anti-American conspiracy.

This was the heart of the matter. As early as 8th November, Rupert Murdoch began to fret that the network was facing an existential crisis. “Getting creamed by CNN! Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it.” And if they did want election coverage, they were increasingly switching to watch it on Newsmax. “The network [Fox] is being rejected,” Hannity texted Carlson and Ingraham on 9th November. “Never before has this happened.” Carlson texted his producer: “We’re playing with fire, for real… an alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.” 

On 13th November, Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich tweeted, quite accurately, that “top election infrastructure officials” were debunking the claims of voter fraud and insistent that the election was “the most secure in American history”. In a text thread, Carlson raged that such conduct by Fox employees “needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company”, asking Hannity to “please get her [Heinrich] fired”. 

In his deposition, Lachlan Murdoch admitted that the drop in Fox’s ratings “would keep me awake” at night. And this meant, in his view, that reporters, as well as commentators, had to put their shoulder to the wheel.

Accordingly, he contacted Scott during a pro-Trump rally on 14th November and warned her that: “News guys have to be careful how they cover this… So far some of the side comments are slightly anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this is a huge celebration of the president.” 

So much then for the long-maintained conceit that there was a strict division between opinion and news at Fox; that the network was, in Ailes’s famous formulation, “Fair and Balanced”.

Yet it was not Trump himself that Fox’s senior figures most feared. In private, Carlson had nothing but contempt for the defeated president, declaring on 4th January that “I hate him passionately”. Certainly, they were wary of his destructive power. On 16th November, Murdoch wrote to Scott that: “We don’t want to antagonize Trump further… Everything at stake here.” In his deposition, Murdoch added that he had not wished to provoke Trump unnecessarily: “He had a very large following, and they were probably mostly viewers of Fox, so it would have been stupid.”

In other words, what Fox truly feared was its own capricious, angry, uncontrollable audience. As Rupert told Lachlan: “We have to lead our viewers which is not as easy as it might seem.”

On 11th November, Shah presented a survey of the network’s audience compiled by YouGov, showing “more clear declines in favorability, especially with primetime viewers”. As he told Fox News senior vice president Irena Briganti, “On our current course, if not already then by the weekend, opinions of Fox from our core viewers will be underwater”. 

Was it all about money then? The network’s commercial viability? Yes and no. In his deposition, Murdoch presented himself as primarily a businessman, agreeing with Dominion’s lawyers that his preferred colour “is not red or blue, it is green”.

Of course, Fox jealously guarded its dominant position in the cable news market specifically and the right-wing media ecosphere more generally. If, at a time of great political volatility, outliers such as Newsmax became genuine competitors, cable providers might prove unwilling to pay as much for the right to distribute Fox News. And on Monday 7th December (for one hour only, admittedly) Newsmax finally beat Fox in the ratings, with Greg Kelly’s increasingly popular 7pm show. This had to be fixed.

Yet it is a mistake to see this exclusively as a story about commercial imperatives cynically eclipsing the basic duties of a news platform (though it certainly is that, too). The Dominion lawsuit files have also revealed, to an unprecedented extent, the terrible perils of an information culture in which the values of showbusiness and the entertainment industry matter more than the traditional journalistic standards of reporting, forensic investigation and cool analysis.

Not all contemporary politicians and media organisations are complicit in this trend. But many are. Trump, Boris Johnson and former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro all epitomise the degeneration of government into televisual and digital theatre. Just as Johnson reduced politics to showmanship and displayed nothing but disdain for true statecraft, so Trump cared only about ratings (which is why he was so incensed, in January 2017, by reports that the crowds at his inauguration were smaller than Barack Obama’s).

Persistent: the myth of a stolen election, broadcast by Fox in the days after the election, has not gone away Persistent: the myth of a stolen election, broadcast by Fox in the days after the election, has not gone away

As candidate and president, Trump perceived politics through the prism of showbusiness. He considered himself a maverick, a populist disruptor and an entertainer, playing a game in which dreary facts and statistics were an irrelevance. Tribe mattered more than truth. Brutish emotional resonance mattered more than anything, no matter what got wrecked or who got hurt. 

And Fox News was along for the ride, feeding (and fearing) the Maga beast that it had done so much to create; constructing a vast, highly effective and ultimately deadly echo chamber. 

In this inglorious saga, as Murdoch said, everything was at stake—though not in the sense he meant. The most meaningful test of a healthy democracy is the peaceful transition of power from a defeated government to its successor. In the weeks after the 2020 presidential election, Fox knowingly conspired in the sabotage of that process, violating every principle of journalism as it did so.

So far, the bids to establish a British counterpart to Fox—GB News and Murdoch’s own TalkTV—have faltered. But that is no reason to be sanguine. Observe the disaggregation of UK news platforms into a torrent of podcasts, in which the demands of “narrative” all too often overshadow the nuance of reality. 

Consider what might happen if, as many Conservatives hope, the licence fee is ditched in 2027 and the BBC becomes just another subscription service, competing for eyeballs with private sector channels and streaming platforms. 

What would such a free-for-all look like and how well would it maintain an informed democracy? It would not be wise to let justified disapproval of Murdoch’s conduct slide into a sanctimonious complacency about one’s own backyard.

As for Fox News, it is thriving after its taste of mortality. In 2022, it was yet again the top cable news network, well ahead of MSNBC and CNN, with (according to Nielsen) 92 of the top 100 cable news shows. In January, Fox marked its 20th successive year as the most-watched cable news network in that month.

The long-term consequences of the Dominion lawsuit for the network cannot yet be predicted. But if lessons have been learned, they are not visible on screen. Carlson, in particular, has doubled down, making selective use of security video footage of the Capitol uprising, released exclusively to Fox by Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy to claim that most of the rioters were “sightseers” not “insurrectionists”, engaged in, at worst, “mostly peaceful chaos”. The myth has not gone away but morphed.

Why did they do it? Because they feared what might happen if they didn’t; because they could; and because they were unable to resist their basest instincts. 

Roger Ailes was right all those years ago. Television is so much more than a gimmick; and, in the wrong hands, can do so much harm. In the end, the Fox was more like the scorpion in the well-known fable, stinging the frog of democracy it was being carried on, sinking them both into a quagmire of dishonesty, disinformation and disorder. It was simply being true to its nature. It still is.