Fox leaders wanted to break with Trump but struggled to make it happen

Five days after a pro-Trump mob attacked the US Capitol, Fox Corporation board member Anne Dias reached out to Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch with an urgent plea.

“Given how important Fox News was as a megaphone for Donald Trump,” she said, it was time “to take a stand.” Ms Dias, who sounded shaken by the riot, said she thinks Fox News and the nation are facing “an existential moment”.

Once the two Murdochs started discussing how to react, their bond became apparent.

“Just tell her we’ve spoken internally and intensively,” wrote Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls the company, in an email. Fox News, he told his son, is “pivoting as soon as possible.” But he cautioned: “We have to lead our viewers, it’s not as easy as it might seem.”

Ever since Donald J. Trump announced his presidential campaign in 2015, Rupert Murdoch and his Fox News Channel have struggled with how to deal with the man and the movement they helped found.

“Navigating” the delicate balance between truth and “craziness” was how Mr. Murdoch described his challenge in emails released this week as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News , which is expected to appear in court in April .

For the most part, Mr. Murdoch was extremely successful at keeping his balance. Fox turned Mr. Trump’s mass following into loyal viewers who bring huge profits to Mr. Murdoch and his shareholders.

But the emails between the Murdochs and their companies’ top leadership, along with testimony from both men on the case, revealed how Fox and his leaders struggled to stand up to Mr Trump when he began making unsubstantiated claims about widespread elections spread fraud.

Fox leadership and its star anchors are often seen from the outside as power brokers in Republican politics – rightly so. But after the election, they appeared scared of alienating Mr Trump’s supporters, almost to the point of swooning, court filings with internal memos and testimonies show.

Secretly, the executives and hosts expressed their desperation and disgust at the Trump staffers who used Fox News’ platforms to spread false allegations of voter fraud. Yet audience desires — or how network executives interpreted them — dictated what guests were booked, what kind of new programming was created, what correspondents could say on the air, and even what people lost their jobs, details in a 212 -page filing Dominion filed with a state court in Delaware this week.

Fox News has expressed confidence that Dominion’s claims will fall apart once their full context is revealed during the trial. “Dominion obviously misconstrued the facts by cherry picking, omitting key context and mischaracterizing the recording,” a Fox News spokeswoman said.

When it became apparent that a section of Fox’s audience turned against it after projecting President Biden’s victory, and viewers began switching to far-right alternatives like Newsmax, people within the network scramble to stem the bleeding .

Even when executives shared concerns about Mr. Trump, they were tough on those deemed too hard on him.

Eleven days after the election, for example, Lachlan Murdoch reacted with irritation to Fox News correspondent Leland Vittert’s coverage of a pro-Trump rally in Washington, which he felt was too critical. Mr Murdoch called Mr Vittert’s reporting “smug and offensive” in a message to Fox News Media chief executive Suzanne Scott. Ms Scott responded that she was “calling now” to direct someone to relay the message to the correspondent and his producer.

As word of Mr Murdoch’s complaint made its way up the food chain, Fox’s weekend programming executive David Clark also got involved, emailing a colleague that he had texted Mr Vittert and had told him to cut it out.”

For Lachlan Murdoch, no detail seemed too small to complain about if he felt it hurt the bond Fox News had built with its audience over the years. He also once complained to Ms. Scott about what he took to be negative tone towards Mr. Trump in the chyron – the block of text that appears at the bottom of the screen. It’s too wordy, he said, and too negative about the president.

Rupert Murdoch made suggestions to Ms Scott about booking guests, who were known to Trump supporters as staunch defenders. One person he proposed in late November 2020 was former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, who pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to federal investigators about his contacts with a Russian ambassador. A week after Mr. Murdoch sent his note, Dominion files say Mr. Flynn appeared on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox Business show.

The elder Mr. Murdoch also urged Ms. Scott to get rid of Bill Sammon, a senior Fox News executive, telling her that doing so would be very successful with the former president’s core supporters. “Perhaps it’s best to let Bill go right now,” he told Ms. Scott on November 20. Mr. Sammon ran the network’s Washington office, overseeing the unit responsible for Fox’s early — and correct — decision to project that Mr. Biden would win Arizona. This call had infuriated Mr. Trump and his supporters.

Mr Murdoch told Ms Scott that the sacking would be “a big message for the Trump people”. According to the Dominion briefing, Mr. Sammon was told he would be released later that day.

As Fox executives rooted out skepticism about Mr. Trump in the network’s coverage, they also became disillusioned with the increasing crowd of “crazy” on their airwaves, as Rupert Murdoch told Trump legal adviser Sidney Powell in an email to a Freund described the legal paperwork. In early December 2020, as Mr Trump’s claims of being scammed became increasingly far-fetched, Mr Murdoch acknowledged how difficult it had become to continue to provide coverage that didn’t offend loyal, pro-Trump viewers without that To state the obvious: The President lied to her about his loss.

In a message to Ms Scott, Mr Murdoch lamented Mr Trump’s performance at a Georgia rally where he called on Gov. Brian Kemp to help overthrow the election, as well as other recent comments from the President. “Everything makes it harder to solve the problem! We should talk this through,” he wrote.

After January 6, 2021, as hopes grew among many conservatives who were skeptical of Mr. Trump that the Republican Party might finally be done with him, some of his closest followers within Fox News seemed to shy away from him — even host Sean Hannity, one of Mr. Trump’s most dedicated on-air supporters, according to Mr. Murdoch’s emails.

“Wake-up call for Hannity,” Mr. Murdoch wrote in an email on Jan. 12, 2021 to Paul D. Ryan, former Republican Speaker of the House and Fox Corporation board member. Mr Murdoch explained that the presenter “had been privately disgusted with Trump for weeks but was afraid of losing viewers”.

At least for a while. It wasn’t long before Mr Hannity and other prime-time presenters, including Tucker Carlson, began speaking about the attack and its aftermath, as preferred by Mr Trump and his supporters.

In the opening monologue of one of his shows in June 2022, when a congressional investigation into the attack was in full swing, Mr. Hannity told his audience, “January 6 is just another excuse to smear Donald Trump and anyone who supports them.” Fox leaders wanted to break with Trump but struggled to make it happen

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