News

Fox News was meant to be a TV channel for the man on the street. Sure, its primetime anchors might be able to live lives of luxury on their multimillion-dollar salaries, but that didn’t matter: this was a channel that told it straight and reported the real facts that “they” — the metropolitan liberal “ruling class” — didn’t want “you, ordinary Americans, to hear.

This was not, of course, a view that everyone subscribed to — least of all Democrat voters, fewer than one in five of whom trust Fox News, according to a YouGov poll last year. But it was a narrative that the network and its star anchors have pushed relentlessly. Anchor Tucker Carlson, for instance, invoked the “ruling class” in more than 800 of 1,150 episodes of his show, according to analysis by the New York Times last year.

Over the past month or so, however, this narrative has unravelled spectacularly — via a trove of texts, emails and depositions made public as part of a $1.6bn defamation case brought against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems. The company alleges that the network knowingly aired false claims that the 2020 election had been stolen from Donald Trump, partly because of the use of Dominion machines.

The aspect of the communication between Fox News hosts and executives that I found most repugnant was the gap between what was being said among themselves and what was said on air. In November 2020, Carlson sent a text to his producer referring to claims that voting software had been manipulated to rig votes. “The software shit is absurd,” he wrote. Later that night, he told viewers of his show: “We don’t know anything about the software that many say was rigged. We don’t know. We ought to find out.” In another text to one of his team, in January 2021, Carlson, who has been a major supporter of Trump on his show, said about the then president: “I hate him passionately.” In another, he called Trump “a demonic force, a destroyer”. 

This isn’t the first time Fox has itself ended up accidentally revealing that viewers should not take what it says seriously. In another defamation lawsuit in 2020, a lawyer for the network successfully defended Fox by arguing that the “general tenor” of Carlson’s show should inform viewers that he was “not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary’”.

Carlson and co might have been exaggerating, sure, but they were still on the viewers’ side — any “reasonable viewer”, argued the lawyer, watched Carlson “with an appropriate amount of scepticism” about the statements he makes.

This time, a Fox anchor was seemingly conspiring against his own viewers. In a text message to fellow primetime hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham about a Fox News reporter who had tweeted that there was “no evidence” for Trump’s claims that the election had been stolen by Dominion’s voting machines, Carlson wrote: “Please get her fired. Seriously . . . What the fuck? I’m actually shocked. It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Fox’s real motives have suddenly become embarrassingly transparent. As Brian Stelter, CNN’s former chief media correspondent and the Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow at Harvard, tells me: “Fox presents itself as a family, and Fox wants viewers to feel like they are part of the Fox family. But the gap between the imaginary family and the capitalist reality is really clear in these messages . . . It’s actually just a cold, hard, calculating business.”

It’s not yet obvious what the impact of all of this will be on Fox’s viewing figures. In a survey conducted earlier this month by Maru Group for Variety Intelligence Platforms, 21 per cent of Fox viewers said they trust the network less after the revelations. But while 10 per cent of those aware of the case said they were watching the channel less now, Fox actually saw a slight increase in viewers on the day after chair Rupert Murdoch’s deposition was revealed.

Neither is it clear that Dominion — which is seeking to call Murdoch and Carlson to testify — will win the case, which is expected to go to trial next month; Fox is arguing that its executives and anchors were not directly involved enough in the coverage of the election fraud claims to be held liable, and the fact the network has not settled suggests they are confident they can win.

But what is clear is that the mask has come off. The idea that Fox News is a channel of the people has been shown to be a lie, just like the claims of technology-enabled election fraud peddled to its loyal viewers.

jemima.kelly@ft.com

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