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Since 2002, when Fox News first overtook CNN as the most-watched cable news channel, one thing has been as certain and predictable as its dominance: Every time a Democrat wins the White House, the right-leaning network’s ratings take a momentary dip.
That happened after the election of President Biden in 2020, too. But the reaction inside Fox was far different than before.
There was panic. From the chairman of Fox Corporation on down, executives scrambled as they tried to keep viewers tuned in, believing they were facing a crisis. Now, because of the decisions made after former President Donald J. Trump’s loss, Fox News is reckoning with a threat that could prove far more serious.
A $1.6 billion defamation suit from Dominion Voting Systems claims Fox knowingly spread false information about the role of the firm’s election technology in a made-up conspiracy to flip votes. On Tuesday, the two sides will present oral arguments before a judge in Delaware state court as they prepare for a trial next month.
Fox has insisted that it wasn’t presenting claims about Dominion as fact but was reporting and opining on them as any news organization would.
As part of the suit, Dominion obtained thousands of internal Fox emails and text messages and deposed dozens of Fox employees. That evidence shows in extraordinary detail how the network lost its way in the weeks after the election. Here is a timeline of that fateful period, as told in court filings. Some of these exchanges have been lightly condensed for clarity.
Nov. 3, 2020
A Sales Record
On Election Day, Fox News was riding high. A draft of an internal memo written by the executive who oversees advertising for the network, Jeff Collins, described the sales records the channel had just set.
Election Update News
• 11 of the top 15 revenue days in Fox News history occurred since the first presidential debate on 9/29
• Election Day saw the highest linear revenue in Fox News history despite significantly reduced commercial load …
• According to Kantar, Fox News booked more political revenue than any other broadcast or cable network.
‘A Lot … to Think About’
But a few days later, when Mr. Biden was declared the president-elect by all the major news organizations, including Fox, viewership started to fall. The company’s top executives, including Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox Corporation, and Suzanne Scott, the chief executive of Fox News Media, noticed.
In an email to Ms. Scott, Mr. Murdoch wrote:
Getting creamed by CNN! Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it. Hard enough for me!
They’ll return. (Not for Chris Wallace!)
Laura Ingraham very good and gracious.
Anyway, football today!
A half-hour later, Ms. Scott forwarded the email to Jay Wallace, the president of Fox News. She described her recent discussion with Mr. Murdoch and his son Lachlan, the chief executive of Fox Corporation, about how the network could begin to regroup post-Trump:
SUBJECT: Fw. Ratings
Long talk with KRM and Lachlan (told them first 72 hours will be the worst of it) they are expecting
-major overhaul of polling (WSJ doing same and will no work with NBC)
-audiences don’t want to see too much of the Mayor Pete’s and Coons etc in the news hours. Need to be careful about bookings next 2 months – especially in news hours
-breaking news reporting and investigative units need to get back in the game been beaten by digital reporters on breaking news this past year.
Talk more tomorrow – a lot for your to think about this week.
Nov. 10 and 11
‘It’s All Our Viewers Care About’
A week after the election, a consensus quickly hardened inside the network: It could not continue to lose viewers to a much smaller right-wing cable news rival, Newsmax.
Fox News v. Dominion Voter Systems
Documents from a lawsuit filed by the voting machine maker Dominion against Fox News have shed light on the debate inside the network over false claims related to the 2020 election.
Dana Perino, a Fox News host and former spokeswoman for President George W. Bush, texted Colin Reed, a Republican strategist, about the worry brewing:
… But there is this RAGING issue about fox losing tons of viewers and many watching – get this – newsmax! Our viewers are so mad about the election calls (as if our calls would have been any different. It’s just votes!)
Another host, Tucker Carlson, texted with his producer, Alex Pfeiffer, about the fact that viewers were angry that Mr. Carlson had ignored allegations of voter fraud that night in his broadcast — a subject that Newsmax had been hammering:
Alex Pfeiffer: You told me to tell you if we are getting attacked on Twitter so I will. Many viewers were upset tonight that we didn’t cover election fraud.
Tucker Carlson: Yeah. Probably should have.
Pfeiffer: Yeah I didn’t get why we didnt. Assumed it was some sort of decision not to.
Pfeiffer: But it’s all our viewers care about now
Carlson: I just hate that shit.
Pfeiffer: Yeah its honestly awful
Pfeiffer: did you see this? [Texts a tweet with an excerpt of a Washington Post article that quotes an anonymous Republican official who says Mr. Trump will eventually get tired of claiming he was cheated and leave office.]
Pfeiffer: Its like birtherism 2.0. A grassroots movement the GOP leadership thinks they can control and go away but this wont.
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