Fox News CEO’s Strategy at Center of $1.6 Billion Lawsuit

From a New York Times story by Jeremy W. Peters and Rachel Abrams headlined “Fox News C.E.O.’s Strategy at Center of $1.6 Billion Lawsuit”:

Before the committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection held its first prime-time hearing in June, Suzanne Scott, the chief executive of Fox News Media, called Lachlan Murdoch, her boss, to tell him how her network planned to broadcast the event.

They wouldn’t, she said. The channel would stick with its usual prime-time lineup of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Mr. Murdoch, the executive chairman of Fox Corporation, was fine with Ms. Scott’s decision, according to an executive with knowledge of their conversation.

As a business move, Ms. Scott’s call was the right one for Fox News in the end. As many viewers tuned in as they would on a regular night. And Fox still managed to best CNN in the ratings.

The decision was true to form, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former colleagues. Since Ms. Scott took over the top job at Fox News in 2018, her colleagues said, she has managed from behind the scenes with a simple mantra: Respect Fox’s audience. Often, that involves sparing conservative viewers what they don’t want to hear — even when that means ignoring one of the biggest stories of the year.

That strategy has helped Fox News succeed not just as the most-watched cable news network in the country but also as a multibillion-dollar consumer brand with a suite of businesses that, according to a recent company promo for one product, offers fans “The World According to Fox.” In addition to the Fox News and Fox Business cable channels, Ms. Scott has introduced Fox News Books, a publisher of meditations on Christianity; Fox Nation, a $5.99-per-month streaming service that produces a reboot of “Cops” and an original special from Mr. Carlson, “The End of Men,” that purports to explore a nationwide decline in testosterone rates; and Fox Weather, a new app and cable channel.

But Ms. Scott’s Fox News — a sanctuary for conservatives where few unpleasant facts intrude and political misinformation has spread — also looms large in a case that threatens Fox’s business, and possibly Ms. Scott herself. She has emerged as one of the central figures in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems, in which the voting company accuses Fox executives of juicing ratings and profits by repeatedly airing false information about Dominion machines siphoning votes away from former President Donald J. Trump.

According to several people closely involved in the case, lawyers for Dominion are expected to depose her soon. A judge has granted Dominion access to her emails and text messages from the period after the 2020 election when Fox anchors and guests amplified some of the most outrageous falsehoods about Dominion and its supposed role in a plot to steal the election.

So far, those messages contained at least one instance in which Ms. Scott expressed skepticism about the dubious claims of voter fraud that her network had been promoting, a recent court proceeding revealed. That kind of evidence is what Dominion hopes will ultimately convince a jury that Fox broadcast information it knew to be false, which would leave the company on the hook for significant damages.

People who have heard Ms. Scott speak in meetings say she has been critical of Mr. Trump’s election denial claims, though she mostly keeps her personal politics private. (She is registered as unaffiliated.) One colleague recalled that in a meeting shortly after the 2020 election, Ms. Scott seemed in disbelief as she described how people she considered otherwise serious and rational thought there was any chance Mr. Trump could legitimately stop President Biden’s inauguration.

And according to a message that Ms. Scott sent around the same time, which Dominion lawyers recently cited in court, she warned against “giving the crazies an inch,” referring to pro-Trump conspiracy theorists. NPR first reported on that message, but a transcript of the hearing in which it was disclosed has since been sealed by a judge at Fox’s request. Fox has suffered several setbacks in court lately as it has tried to narrow the scope of the case and limit what internal communications it is required to hand over to Dominion.

In a statement, Fox News Media lauded Ms. Scott for expanding the company into numerous new businesses. “We are extremely proud of Suzanne rising through the ranks to become one of the most successful C.E.O.s in the media industry and her track record of incredible results speaks for itself.”

Lawyers for Fox have said that its commentary on the 2020 election and Dominion was protected by the First Amendment and inherently newsworthy. “There is nothing more newsworthy than covering the president of the United States and his lawyers making allegations,” Fox News Media said in a statement.

Dominion has disputed that. “If it were up to Fox, the more ‘newsworthy’ the lie, the greater their right to spread it,” a Dominion spokeswoman said. “However, the First Amendment does not give broadcasters the right to knowingly spread lies or disregard the truth.”

Ms. Scott, 56, enjoys a close relationship with the Murdochs, who value the knowledge of Fox News she has accumulated over nearly 30 years with the network and who trust that she has the right vision to expand the business as cord cutting threatens the cable industry, according to two senior Fox colleagues.

The Murdochs, however, have been forced to make hard choices about even their most favored chief executives when scandal overwhelms. In 2010, Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox Corporation, reluctantly pushed out Rebekah Brooks, who ran his British newspapers and was a close protégé, amid a police investigation into phone hacking by journalists who worked for her.

Ms. Scott maintains a much more discreet profile than her predecessor, Roger Ailes, a whisperer to Republican presidents who cultivated a Svengali-like image in the media before numerous accusations of sexual harassment led to his downfall.

She grew up in Northern New Jersey, where she lives today with her husband and teenage daughter. Her first job for Fox was as an assistant to one of Mr. Ailes’s top deputies. Her first big promotion was to a senior producer position on Greta Van Susteren’s show. She would go on to oversee network talent, and then programming.

Colleagues say she pays careful attention to what’s on Fox, often watching from her office with the sound off and occasionally offering advice to producers and hosts on how sets could look better, outfits sharper and guests could be more compelling.

Under her direction, Fox News has maintained not only one of the biggest audiences in cable but in all of television, occasionally drawing more viewers than traditional broadcast networks like ABC. And Fox News collects far higher ad rates than its competitors — an average of almost $9,000 for a 30-second commercial in prime time, compared with about $6,200 for CNN and $5,300 for MSNBC, according to the Standard Media Index, an independent research firm. (One of the writers of this article, Jeremy W. Peters, is an MSNBC contributor.)

As chief executive, Ms. Scott has adopted a mostly deferential view of dealing with talent, current and former hosts said.

Mr. Ailes believed that no host should ever assume they were bigger than the network — or him. In 2010, for instance, after Mr. Hannity made plans to broadcast his show from a Tea Party rally in Cincinnati where organizers had billed him as the star attraction, Mr. Ailes ordered the host to scrap his plans and return to New York, threatening to “put a chimpanzee on the air” if he didn’t make it back in time, recalled one former Fox employee.

But in a sign of how times have changed, star hosts like Mr. Carlson and Mr. Hannity have spoken at political events in recent years.

According to one Fox journalist, the biggest stars at the network are given much wider latitude today. Speaking anonymously for fear of retaliation, this person added: “Tucker is in charge of Tucker. Hannity is in charge of Hannity.”

Mr. Carlson, whose 8 p.m. show draws the highest ratings of any in cable news prime time, has boasted about operating without any interference from upper management. “I don’t clear anything with anybody,” Mr. Carlson said recently at a journalism symposium. One Fox executive who speaks regularly with Ms. Scott said Mr. Carlson’s claim “is not true.”

Ms. Scott’s supporters argue that much of the tone of the criticism that she’s too hands-off is sexist.

Her supporters are also quick to point out that Ms. Scott has elevated numerous women into powerful spots, forming a “League of Their Own,” as some inside Fox have taken to calling it. Dana Perino, Harris Faulkner, Sandra Smith and Martha MacCallum all have their own daytime shows. And for the first time, a woman, Shannon Bream, is the host of Fox News Sunday, the network’s signature political talk show.

“If she were the C.E.O. of CNN, lets be honest, the cover stories would never end,” said Ms. Perino, a former aide to President George W. Bush who co-hosts two hours on Fox News every weekday. “She doesn’t get that kind of recognition, but she doesn’t need it either.”

The picture of Ms. Scott that was painted in lawsuits filed by former Fox News female employees over Mr. Ailes’s misconduct, however, was not quite so flattering. In one from the former anchor Julie Roginsky, for instance, Ms. Scott is described as part of a team that recruited employees to publicly disparage Gretchen Carlson, the former host whose secret recordings of her meetings with Mr. Ailes helped bring him down. Fox has denied those claims.

Several women and men who worked at Fox said that Ms. Scott was viewed as the enforcer of Mr. Ailes’s leggy, blonde aesthetic for women on the air while she was a more junior executive, communicating to them things a man could not say. Mr. Ailes, according to one former Fox executive who spoke directly to him about his relationship with Ms. Scott, once said: “I don’t want to call you guys to tell the girls to hike their skirts up. So I call Suzanne.”

In a statement, Fox News Media defended Ms. Scott, noting that she had increased the number of women in executive roles by 50 percent. “She has revitalized the culture and led a reorganization of the management structure,” the statement said.

The story of the longtime anchor Shepard Smith’s departure in the fall of 2019 revealed much about her reluctance to police top Fox talent. According to two people who spoke to Mr. Smith, one of the few politically independent voices left at the network then, his employment became untenable after he and Mr. Carlson took veiled shots at each other on their respective programs over the validity of the charges that would eventually lead to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment.

Mr. Smith, they said, was stunned that week to read on the website of Vanity Fair something he knew wasn’t true: that Ms. Scott had told him to stop criticizing Mr. Carlson or she would pull him off the air. Mr. Smith, who had already quietly been negotiating his exit from Fox, told friends he believed that Mr. Carlson was behind the erroneous leak. He demanded that Ms. Scott and Jay Wallace, president of Fox News, personally issue a full-throated denial of the story.

None came — only a quote from a Fox representative in the Hollywood Reporter saying that neither executive had spoken directly to Mr. Smith about the incident. Three weeks later, Mr. Smith shocked colleagues when he announced live on his 3 p.m. program that he was leaving Fox News after 23 years.

Jeremy W. Peters covers media and its intersection with politics, law and culture. He is the author of “Insurgency: How Republicans Lost Their Party and Got Everything They Ever Wanted.”

Rachel Abrams is a media reporter for The Times. She was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2018 for public service for reporting that exposed sexual harassment and misconduct.

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