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Off the air, Fox News stars blasted the election fraud claims they peddled

In the days and weeks after the 2020 elections, Fox News Channel repeatedly broadcast false claims that then-President Donald Trump had been cheated of victory.

Off the air, the network's stars, producers and executives expressed contempt for those same conspiracies, calling them "mind-blowingly nuts," "totally off the rails" and "completely bs" — often in far earthier terms.

The network's top primetime stars — Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity — texted contemptuously of the claims in group chats, but also denounced colleagues pointing that out publicly or on television.

Ingraham called Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell "a bit nuts." Carlson, who famously demanded evidence from Powell on the air, privately used a vulgar epithet for women to describe her. A top network programming executive wrote privately that he did not believe the shows of Carlson, Hannity and Jeanine Pirro were credible sources of news.

Even so, top executives strategized about how to make it up to their viewers — among Trump's strongest supporters — after Fox News' election-night team correctly called the pivotal state of Arizona for Democratic nominee Joe Biden before other networks. A sense of desperation pervades the private notes from Fox's top stars, reflecting an obsession with collapsing ratings.

"It's remarkable how weak ratings make ... good journalists do bad things," Bill Sammon, at the time the network's Washington managing editor, privately wrote on Dec. 2, 2020. Network executives above him stewed over the hit to Fox News' brand among its viewers. Yet there was little apparent concern, other than some inquiries from Fox Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch, over the journalistic values of fairness and accuracy.

The audience started to erode severely that fall, starting on election night itself. Fox executives and stars equally obsessed over the threat posed by the smaller right-wing network Newsmax. Hannity texted Carlson and Ingraham that Fox's Arizona call "destroyed a brand that took 25 years to build and the damage is incalculable." Carlson shot back that it was "vandalism." Others hosts, including Dana Perino, were equally shocked.

Fox News host Neil Cavuto was attacked by colleagues for pulling his show away from a presentation by then White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany in which she made unfounded claims of fraud once more. (McEnany is now a host on Fox News.)

Those revelations and far more surfaced in legal filings made public late Thursday afternoon as part of Dominion Voting System's blockbuster $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox and its parent company. Dominion sued after Fox hosts and guests repeatedly claimed, without evidence, that the company had switched Trump votes to Biden.

The material presented in the remarkable 178-page brief reflects there were no illusions that there was heft to the allegations of election fraud even among those Fox figures who gave the most intense embrace to Trump allies peddling those lies.

Instead, Dominion's attorneys paint a portrait of inner turmoil, anger and angst at the news network.

"Dominion has mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context, and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law," a Fox News spokesperson said.

Fox leaders worried turning away from false allegations of voter fraud would hurt their brand

After Fox's correct projection of Arizona for Biden, network leaders schemed to woo back Trump supporters. Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott texted Lachlan Murdoch, the Fox Corp. co-chairman, that "the AZ [call] was damaging but we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them."

A team led by then-Fox Corp. senior vice president Raj Shah, formerly a White House aide to Trump, warned other top corporate leaders of a "Brand Threat" after Cavuto's refusal to air McEnany's White House press briefing on baseless claims of voter fraud.

The claims against the election tech company recurred on Fox News despite Dominion sending thousands of communications dissecting and disproving the false claims — even taking to the opinion pages of Fox News' corporate cousin, the Wall Street Journal, to do so. (Both Fox News and the Wall Street Journal are part of the Murdoch family's media empire.) Dominion says it sent more than 3,600 communications to Fox staffers taking issue with the false claims of election fraud.

Fox News host Maria Bartiromo was first to interview Powell, the Trump attorney, on Nov. 8, 2020, a few days after the election. Powell would become one of Trump's most fervent legal advocates. In her deposition, Bartiromo conceded Powell's claims lacked any substantiation.

Fox News: 'A lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners'

For its part, Fox's attorneys call Dominion's suit an attempt to punish the news network for reporting on "one of the biggest stories of the day." The network says it could dissuade journalists in the future from reporting allegations "inconvenient to Dominion—and other companies."

In a separate filing, also released to the public on Thursday, the cable network's attorneys say Dominion's ten-figure request for damages is designed to "generate headlines" and to enrich the company's controlling owner, the private equity fund Staple Street Capital Partners.

"According to Dominion, [Fox News] had a duty not to truthfully report the President's allegations but to suppress them or denounce them as false," the Fox attorneys argue. Fox further asserts that Dominion did not suffer harm as a result of the broadcasts, and that the company's value as a business is nowhere near the $1.6 billion in damages it is seeking.

"There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners," Fox News said in a statement Thursday. "The core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v. Sullivan."

Dominion Voting Systems: 'Every person acted with actual malice'

Under the high legal bar of actual malice, defined in that 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision involving The New York Times, Dominion has to show Fox acted either with knowledge that what it was broadcasting to the public was false, or that it acted with reckless disregard of the truth.

"Here," Dominion's legal team wrote in its filings, "every person acted with actual malice." It offered one example after another that key Fox figures knew what the network was putting on the air was false.

On Nov. 5, 2020, just days after the election, Bret Baier, the network's chief political anchor, texted a friend: "[T]here is NO evidence of fraud. None. Allegations - stories. Twitter. Bulls---."

The following week, a producer for Ingraham sent a note conveying similar disgust. "This dominion s--- is going to give me a f---ing aneurysm."

In answering questions from Dominion's attorneys under oath, former Fox Business host Lou Dobbs said he had never "seen any verifiable, tangible support" that Dominion was owned by a second voting-tech company Smartmatic. Yet that claim was repeatedly said on air by Fox hosts and guests. Dobbs also said he was aware of no evidence that Dominion rigged the election, according to Dominion's legal filings.

On the air, Dobbs was among the most muscular proponents of Trump's baseless claims of election fraud. He was forced out of Fox the day after Smartmatic filed its own $2.7 billion defamation case against the network.

A purge of journalists behind accurate election night call

Meanwhile, fixated on the erosion of viewers to smaller right-wing rivals, Fox News executives purged senior journalists who were fixated on reflecting the facts. In a note to the network's top publicity executive, Fox News CEO Scott denounced Sammon, the former Washington managing editor. Scott wrote Sammon did not understand "the impact to the brand and the arrogance" in projecting Arizona for Biden, saying it was Sammon's job "to protect the brand."

His departure two months later was termed a retirement by Fox News; through an intermediary, Sammon has declined to comment on that, citing the terms of his departure.

Despite their contempt for Powell and Giuliani, the two Trump campaign attorneys appeared repeatedly on Fox shows. On several occasions, so did Trump.

On Jan. 5, 2021, the day before Congress was to ceremonially affirm Biden's win, and an angry pro-Trump mob sacked the U.S. Capitol to prevent it, Rupert Murdoch forwarded a suggestion to Fox News CEO Scott. He recommended that the Fox prime time stars — Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham — acknowledge Trump's loss. "Would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election was stolen," he wrote. They did not do so. "We need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers," Scott said to a colleague.

As the election tech firm's attorneys wrote in their filing, Fox never retracted the claims made about Dominion on its airwaves.

Karl Baker and Mary Yang contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.