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The private texts of Fox News hosts beg the question: Is the network a feedback loop or a fraud?

A new lawsuit alleges that Fox News hosts ridiculed the idea that the election was stolen but promoted the idea on the air

Richard Hall
Friday 17 February 2023 21:43 GMT
Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity Wanted a Fox News Reporter Fired Over Election Fraud Claims

Imagine a world in which the news bends to your will. One in which, if you lobbied hard enough, or threatened to change the channel, the facts of an event would soften and shift to your liking. Your efforts would have no impact on reality, but instead provide fleeting bliss in exchange for long-lasting ignorance.

New revelations about the inner workings of Fox News appear to show the network has been providing just that service to its millions of viewers.

The revelations come in the form of pages of private text messages between the network’s biggest stars during the 2020 election, released in the discovery phase of a lawsuit filed against the network by a company that manufactures voting machines.

Simply put, they show the network’s top names privately ridiculing the claims of Donald Trump and his supporters that the election was stolen from him, at the same time that they promoted and gave credence to those claims on air.

The lawsuit, filed by Dominion Voting Systems, aims to prove that Fox News defamed the company and acted with malice when it repeatedly broadcast claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Mr Trump while top executives and hosts conceded in private that it had not.

The network does not deny broadcasting the claims, but claims it did so in the pursuit of journalistic enquiry.

In discovery, Dominion found that the network’s top stars — Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity — mocked those claims in private group chats, but also denounced colleagues who questioned them publicly.

In one revealing exchange, Mr Carlson — a self-avowed anti-cancel culture warrior — called for a colleague to be fired after she correctly fact-checked Trump’s false claims about election theft.

His reason? It was hurting the company’s stock price.

“Please get her fired,” Mr Carlson said in a group text with Ms Ingraham and Mr Hannity on 12 November 2020, pointing to a tweet in by Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich that challenged Mr Trump’s claims.

“It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke,” Mr Carlson continued.

In separate messages, Mr Carlson called the election fraud claims and the people promoting them “ludicrous” and “totally off the rails.” Sean Hannity called them "F’ing lunatics.”

Rupert Murdoch, Fox Corp’s chairman, called the voter fraud allegations “really crazy stuff.” And later, referring to Mr Hannity expressing private concerns about Mr Trump spreading false voter fraud claims, Mr Murdoch wrote to a FOX executive: “All very well for Sean to tell you he was in despair about Trump but what did he tell his viewers?”

The discovery also included many messages from executives showing concern that their factual reporting on the election was driving away its viewers.

In short, knowing that these allegations were “really crazy stuff,” Fox News nonetheless continued to broadcast them and give them credence in order to not isolate or lose its audience.

Tucker Carlson says Trump 'recklessly encouraged' Capitol riots

In its response to the allegations, Fox has framed the lawsuit as an attack on the First Amendment.

“When a sitting President of the United States and his legal team challenge a presidential election in litigation throughout the nation, the media can truthfully report and comment on those allegations under the First Amendment without fear of liability,” the company’s lawyers said in a filing.

It said that Fox hosts “did not create allegations against Dominion, which predate the November 2020 election,” claiming that it “truthfully reported the newsworthy claims by President Trump and his legal team.”

The revelations, of which there are likely many more, pull back the curtain on the backroom decision-making at Fox News in a way we have never seen before. Even the most conspiratorial of minds would have struggled to come up with something so brazen.

If a government had engaged in such a blatant campaign of misinformation, we might call it a PSYOP (psychological operation) — a willful effort to influence the opinions, emotions and attitudes of a specific group with propaganda.

But how do we begin to describe a news organisation that knowingly promotes conspiracy theories and fake news in order to keep its audience happy? What does that tell you about what Fox thinks about its viewers?

Perhaps the most generous description of the state of Fox News is that it suffers from a condition known called “audience capture,” a relatively new term used to describe a process through which influencers adapt their personality and output based on what their audience demands.

Gurwinder Bhogal, in an article about its dangers, describes it as a “self-reinforcing feedback loop that involves telling one’s audience what they want to hear and getting rewarded for it.”

Bhogal describes it as “a gradual and unwitting replacement of a person’s identity with one custom-made for the audience,” one that occurs “after they realise that their more outlandish behavior receives the most attention and approval, which leads them to recalibrate their personalities according to far more extreme social cues than those they’d receive in real life.”

In essence, the influencer becomes trapped by its audience, unable to adapt. The caricature takes over. The truth is a sideshow.

A less generous reading of the entire episode is that Fox committed a kind of fraud against its viewers by masking the opinions of its opinion-makers. But that is for the lawsuit to decide.

In any case, this episode should settle the debate once and for all: the daily outrage of Mr Carlson and Mr Hannity and their ilk — from entertaining the idea that the election was stolen, to chastising M&Ms for being too sexy — is performative.

Mr Carlson may work himself into a red-faced fury every evening as he dispenses his wisdom and beliefs, and he may claim to hold them closely and resolutely, but now we know that they are only as strong as the Fox Corp. stock price.

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