In October, I was flying into Newark Airport on a Friday night in some of the worst turbulence I’ve ever encountered. After circling a bit, the pilots attempted a precarious landing, but ultimately aborted a few seconds before touching down. As we climbed back up, the bumps got worse, although we eventually leveled off and flew instead to Philadelphia, where we successfully landed in torrential rain.
I made friends with the people in my row, who managed it fairly unscathed, but throughout the plane there were others crying, screaming, and puking into that little white bag. Surely, while we were flying around, some of those people thought to themselves during the entire hour-long ordeal, “just get us on the ground.” The pilots of course wanted to land too.
But landing the plane wasn’t the only calculus. It was more complicated. They had to land safely.
I thought about this story over the past few weeks as I, along with most of the media and political industry, have digested the Fox News-Dominion lawsuit, and the related juicy texts that have emerged from the top talent and executives at the network. Fox News is one of the largest media organizations. They take incoming all the time from their unique position in the marketplace. But this particular moment in time feels like the spotlight is shining even brighter than normal.
Let’s get the legal side of the equation out of the way. Some argue the First Amendment should protect Fox News from owing damages. On The Megyn Kelly Show, we looked at all the legal arguments for each side last week. I don’t know what will happen, but I do worry about what sort of chilling effect a judgment for Dominion will have on the industry as a whole. I’m not a fan of defamation cases against news organizations. Nick Sandmann ended up settling with CNN, the Washington Post and others over their awful coverage of him — I didn’t love his defamation case. Those organizations owed him an apology, but a financial settlement? It’s more iffy. But even then, Sandmann was a private citizen, and a minor, so the argument was stronger than for a company like Dominion. I don’t like the precedent.
But while the financial issue is surely top-of-mind for the executives at Fox, the cultural cache of Fox News — the trust factor — is a much more fascinating conversation these days in media circles. And that relates less to the original filing itself, which was filled with references to Lou Dobbs tweets and Facebook posts, and much more to do with the text messages of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and others.
As expected, there has been so much bad faith, knee-jerk, nuance-free coverage. Here’s a representative article, from the Atlantic: “Why Fox News Lied To Its Viewers.” But did they? I’m not sure. Instead, what I see in the text messages is an organization trying to manage a crisis being driven by the president of the United States’s frantic push to secure an election outcome that wasn’t materializing, and by extension, a crisis of its viewers wanting to see that outcome reflected on television.
Most of the selectively released texts I’m referring to are in the partially redacted filing which was put out by Dominion a couple weeks ago. As we know now, and probably could have surmised, the massively early Arizona call by the Fox Decision Desk was a major point of contention internally. But the truth is, while the call was right, it was early — much earlier than the competition. Days later, the New York Times explained in detail why it and CNN and so many others (everyone other than Fox and the AP) had left Arizona in the toss-up column. You don’t want to get a call wrong — you want to be absolutely sure. Remember Florida in 2000?
So the Arizona call was the match that lit the flame that started the whole fire to begin with. And then Trump released the Kraken.
Sidney Powell’s involvement, along with the ancillary players of Rudy Giuliani and Lin Wood, was whaDominion Voting Systems, Tucker Carlson, Sidney Powell, Fox News, Maria Bartiromo, Rupert Murdoch, NewsCorp, Lou Dobbs, Rudy Giuliani, Lin Wood, Electoral fraud, Defamation, Judge Jeaninet ultimately put Fox in such a challenging position. The Trump-supporting viewers of Fox were being fed this story about voting machines from the Powell camp, which Trump’s campaign was embracing. What would the coverage look like? As we know, there was the camp that embraced the Powell storylines — like Lou Dobbs, who was out of the network right after the lawsuit was filed. But we don’t see his texts saying he doesn’t believe the Kraken. Only those of people like Tucker Carlson.
And Tucker’s texts provide the best insight into what was really happening there. Early on, we see he’s concerned with the viewer backlash. “We worked really hard to build what we have. Those fuckers are destroying our credibility,” he wrote his producer. “It enrages me.” But at the core is what Carlson texted November 18, about the Kraken lies: “It’s unbelievably offensive to me. Our viewers are good people and they believe it.” (Tucker’s texts are great, but so are his… on-the-record comments, which you can find throughout my book Uncovered — on people like Trump, Joe and Hunter Biden, Bezos, Jon Karl and more, OK shameless plug over.)
According to the Dominion filing, Carlson told Powell the day earlier, “You keep telling our viewers that millions of votes were changed by the software. I hope you will prove that very soon. You’ve convinced them that Trump will win. If you don’t have conclusive evidence of fraud at that scale, it’s a cruel and reckless thing to keep saying.”
When she didn’t put up, on November 19 he took to his show with a lengthy and systematic takedown of the evidence-free Powell claims that were bubbling up in the minds of Trump voters and some Fox viewers. With the video headline “If Trump campaign has voter fraud proof, we need to see it,” he delivered a strong message — watch the full thing here.
He explained how they asked for evidence, but would not be given any. That he’d put Powell on for the full show — the full week, even — if she would just reveal her evidence. That she hadn’t shown the Trump campaign any evidence either. “Why are we telling you this?” he said at the end. “ We’re telling you this because it’s true. And in the end that’s all that matters.”
I have no idea whether this decisive segment will move the needle in the defamation lawsuit, but I do think it speaks to the disconnect so many who are covering this story have with what the texts actually show. Fox News was trying to land the plane.
At one point, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott texted Lachlan Murdoch, “Viewers going through the 5 stages of grief. It’s a question of trust the AZ [call] was damaging but we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.” Are there comments about the stock price, and ratings, and “green” in all the Fox-Dominion texts and testimony too? Absolutely. Would I have hoped Fox viewers got the to the truth about the Kraken, and ultimately, election fraud, sooner? Yes.
But trust with the viewers is paramount, and in that time, it wasn’t just about getting the plane on the ground, because if it lost a wing and crashed, it would be disastrous for all involved. It had to be strategic — finessed. Trump and those around him were the turbulence. Some viewers had their little white bag in hand. It was rough for a bit, for sure. But ultimately, Fox News got the plane on the ground in relatively solid shape. It got to the truth — that the election wasn’t stolen, or rigged, or hacked. And it regained the trust of its viewers.
Now let’s contrast that with Flight 2016. When it comes to 2016 “election denialism,” we see quite a different “acceptable” tactic in the media. Our current White House press secretary said that 2016 was a “stolen election.” Hillary Clinton described the winner of the 2016 election as “illegitimate,” and has continued to maintain that line to this day — as have many Democratic politicians.
In 2019, years after 2016 and what we know about what really happened with Russia, Rachel Maddow was on MSNBC describing “why Putin’s Russia hacked the 2016 election.”
“Putin elected the next US president, arguably,” she told Brian Williams on that 2019 night. Arguably, at least!
I have a feeling if we looked at the text messages of Rachel Maddow and Brian Williams, they wouldn’t privately be saying that Donald Trump was a legitimately elected president. No, they believe the election denialism conspiracy theories that their viewers also continue to propagate. Literally a week ago I was having a conversation with a very smart person on the left, who just casually said that Trump was elected through “illegal” means in 2016. The viewers of MSNBC and many other consumers of Acela Media content believe Kraken-level conspiracy theories about 2016, because the elite “intellectual” people who tell them the news believe it themselves, to this day.
Is this somehow better than Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson trying to figure out how to break the news to their audience that the election wasn’t really stolen? I have a hard time seeing how.
“We’re telling you this because it’s true,” said Tucker Carlson on November 19, 2020. “And in the end that’s all that matters.” Fox News viewers got there eventually. Can the corporate media obsessed with this story say the same about themselves, and their relationship with their audience, on so many stories over the past seven years?
This article was originally published on the Fourth Watch Substack.