On Jan. 4, 2021, Fox News host Tucker Carlson was done with Donald Trump.
“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait,” he texted an unidentified person.
“I hate him passionately. … I can’t handle much more of this,” he added.
By this time, Fox News was in crisis mode. It had angered its audience when it correctly said Joe Biden had won Arizona in the presidential election. Executives and hosts were worried about losing viewers to upstart rivals, most notably Newsmax.
The private comments were a far cry from what Carlson’s viewers were used to hearing from the stalwart conservative host on his prime-time show every night.
“We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest,” he wrote in another text message, referring to the “last four years.” “But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”
The revelation is in hundreds of pages of testimony, private text messages and emails from top Fox News journalists and executives that were made public Tuesday, adding to the trove of documents that show a network in crisis after it alienated core viewers by reporting accurately on the results of the 2020 presidential election.
A judge unsealed the documents, along with parts of some employee depositions, as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News.
The messages are blunt and, at times, profane, as hosts and top executives panicked about how to boost their ratings as Trump refused to acknowledge his defeat. The depositions, meanwhile, offer the broadest picture yet of how executives including Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch allowed baseless conspiracy theories to flourish on air.
In a statement, Fox News accused Dominion of dishonestly portraying key figures’ internal communications.
“Thanks to today’s filings, Dominion has been caught red handed using more distortions and misinformation in their PR campaign to smear FOX News and trample on free speech and freedom of the press,” the statement said. “We already know they will say and do anything to try to win this case, but to twist and even misattribute quotes to the highest levels of our company is truly beyond the pale.”
Smaller snippets of the exchanges were referred to in two Dominion briefs made public in a Delaware court last month, when Dominion sought a summary judgment ruling from the judge and opposed Fox News’ motion asking the judge to dismiss the case.
Dominion’s briefs previously revealed that top figures at Fox News privately blasted election fraud claims as “crazy” and “insane,” even as the network aired them on television, and that top boss Murdoch considered some of Trump’s voter fraud claims to be “bulls— and damaging” yet acknowledged in a deposition that he did nothing to rein in hosts who were promoting the bogus claims in the days after the 2020 election.
“The emails, texts, and deposition testimony speak for themselves. We welcome all scrutiny of our evidence because it all leads to the same place — Fox knowingly spread lies causing enormous damage to an American company,” a Dominion spokesman told NBC News.
Dominion, a voting machine company, sued Fox News in March 2021, alleging it caused “severe damage” by giving oxygen to conspiracy theories it knew were false, including bogus claims that Dominion equipment was used to rig the 2020 election for Biden, that it was tied to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and that it bribed U.S. government officials.
Tensions between Trump and Fox News have escalated in recent months as more revelations have come out and as Murdoch’s media empire has featured Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible 2024 rival. Steve Bannon, a former White House official and longtime Trump ally, has in essence declared war on Murdoch and Fox. Trump has also been going after them in messages on his Truth Social platform.
Fox News has said it was “proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism,” and it argued that the Dominion lawsuit is designed only to garner headlines. Dominion argues that the First Amendment does not allow media outlets to broadcast conspiracy theories they know are false.
“As the dominant media company among those viewers dissatisfied with the election results, Fox gave these fictions a prominence they otherwise would never have achieved. With Fox’s global platform, an audience of hundreds of millions, and the inevitable and extensive republication and dissemination of the falsehoods through social media, these lies deeply damaged Dominion’s once-thriving business,” the 441-page lawsuit says. “Fox took a small flame and turned it into a forest fire.”
Here are some of the key highlights:
Murdoch worried Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham ‘went too far’
In his email to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott on Jan. 21, 2021, the day after Biden was inaugurated, Murdoch discussed the heat he was getting from GOP senators for stories suggesting the election had been stolen.
“Still getting mud thrown at us!” Murdoch wrote. “Maybe Sean and Laura went too far,” he continued, referring to prime-time hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
He also asked Scott whether it was “unarguable that high profile Fox voices fed the story that the election was stolen and that January 6th an important chance to have the result overturned.”
Scott punted the request to a group of executives, noting “please send specifics.”
Six hours later, Irena Briganti, the Fox News executive in charge of communications, responded with more than 15 pages of transcripts of examples.
Prime-time hosts were furious at the news division for its accurate election call
In a group text chain from mid-November, Hannity, Ingraham and Carlson complained about their news colleagues and the network’s decision to call Arizona in favor of Biden. Fox News was the first network to do so, and the call was accurate.
“Why would anyone defend that call,” Hannity asked.
“My anger at the news channel is pronounced,” Ingraham said later in the exchange.
Carlson piped in, saying: “It should be. We devote our lives to building an audience and they let Chris Wallace and Leland [expletive] Vittert wreck it. Too much.”
Wallace and Vittert were Fox News hosts and anchors at the time.
Maria Bartiromo said she would not refer to Biden as the president-elect on air
In text messages with Bannon on Nov. 10, 2020, Fox News host Maria Bartiromo said, “Omg I’m so depressed. I can’t take this,” and lamented how upsetting it was to watch the “world move forward.”
“I want to see massive fraud exposed. Will he be able to turn this around,” she added, referring to Trump. “I told my team we are not allowed to say pres elect at all. Not in scripts or in banners on air. Until this moves through the courts.”
“You are our fighter,” Bannon later replied. “Enough with the sad ! We need u.”
Biden was projected the winner of the presidential race on Nov. 7.
Murdoch predicted Trump would soon be ‘irrelevant’
In an email to former Fox executive Preston Padden 20 days after the election, Murdoch said he believed the network was “navigating” everything “pretty well.”
“And losing tons of viewers – but not leadership yet! Just have to hold our nerve and up our game! In another month Trump will be becoming irrelevant and we’ll have lots to say about Biden, Dems, and appointments – so far pretty dull,” he predicted.
Murdoch’s name is redacted, but the email was mentioned and attributed to him in previously released briefs.
Fox News executive observes: ‘It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things’
In a conversation with Fox News journalist Chris Stirewalt on Dec. 2, 2020, about a month after the election, Bill Sammon, who was then the network’s managing editor, lamented the state of the place they worked.
“More than 20 minutes into our flagship evening news broadcast and we’re still focused solely on supposed election fraud — a month after the election. It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” Sammon said.
Stirewalt added: “It’s a real mess. But sadly no surprise based on the man I saw revealed on election night.”
Sammon replied, “In my 22 years affiliated with Fox, this is the closest thing I’ve seen to an existential crisis — at least journalistically.”
Stirewalt later said he believed they were “losing the silent majority of viewers as we chase the nuts off a cliff.”
Carlson on Trump: ‘I hate him passionately’
Carlson, one of Fox News’ top hosts, made it clear on Jan. 4, 2021, that he was getting fed up with Trump. In a text exchange with an unknown person, Carlson said: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait.”
“I hate him passionately. I blew up at Peter Navarro today in frustration,” he added, referring to the former Trump administration official. “I actually like Peter. But I can’t handle much more of this.”
He wrote in another text message: “That’s the last four years. We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”
Carlson, however, has complained about how reporters appear to “hate Trump with an all-consuming mania,” as he did in a segment on Oct. 30, 2020.
Murdoch wondered whether Pence would pardon Trump
In an email Jan. 12 to Paul Ryan — the former House speaker from Wisconsin who served on Fox Corp.’s board — and his son Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch talked about the fallout from the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“Just talked at length with Suzanne Scott,” he said, referring to the Fox News CEO. “Everything changed last Wednesday. She thinks everyone is now disgusted and previous supporters broken hearted.”
Murdoch also said Trump was now in serious trouble.
“His businesses now ruined!” he said. “Who is going to throw a party at one of his golf clubs or hotels? Let alone a tournament. So he has more than just legal problems, bad though they are. The brand is now poison! Who wants Ivanka’s fashion lines, jewelry, etc?!”
Murdoch even wondered whether Trump could resign and have Vice President Mike Pence pardon him.
Fox Corp.: Murdoch never shared unaired Biden ad
The newly unsealed documents call into question whether Murdoch did in fact share unaired Biden campaign ads with the Trump campaign through Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, as a Dominion filing last week claimed.
In his sworn deposition, Murdoch both denies and admits to having shared campaign ads with the Trump campaign before they were public. In emails released as exhibits, Murdoch promises to share an ad timed for a football game. It is unclear whether he is talking about an aired or an unaired ad.
“Mr. Murdoch forwarded an already-publicly available Biden campaign ad which was available on YouTube,” a Fox Corp. spokesman, Lauren Townsend, said in an email to NBC News.
Two groups filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission against the Trump campaign and Fox Corp. over the alleged ad sharing.
Fox lawyer warned Hannity was ‘getting awfully close to the line’
Two days after the 2020 election, Hannity was making Fox Corp. lawyer Viet Dinh nervous.
“Let’s continue to buckle up for the ride for next 24 hours,” Dinh wrote in an email to other top executives. “Hannity is getting awfully close to the line with his commentary and guests tonight.”
Social media posts from ‘angry conservatives’ hammer Fox News after the election
The week after the election, Fox Corp. Senior Vice President Raj Shah sent around a memo about the state of the Fox “brand” — and it showed that the network was taking a severe hit from its conservative audience.
“This week we continued to see extremely high levels of conservative discontent towards Fox News, both on social media and in the pro-Trump commentariat,” read the weekly report on Nov. 13. “Roughly half of the top 100 tweets and a third of the top 100 Facebook posts mentioning Fox News were from angry conservatives criticizing Fox or threatening to boycott the network. Both Donald Trump and Newsmax have taken active roles in promoting attacks on Fox News, including by pushing leaked footage and false reports about Fox News talent.”
The report included a graph showing Fox News’ net favorability among its viewers that week — with a trend line dropping dramatically.