How Fox Chased Its Audience Down the Rabbit Hole

From a New York Times story by Jim Rutenberg headlined “How Fox Chased Its Audience Down the Rabbit Hole”:

On the evening of Nov. 19, 2020, Rupert Murdoch was watching TV and crawling the walls of his 18th-century mansion in the British countryside while under strict pandemic lockdown. The television hosts at Murdoch’s top cable network, Fox News, might have scoffed at such unyielding adherence to Covid protocols. But Jerry Hall, his soon-to-be fourth ex-wife and no fan of Fox or its conservative hosts, was insisting that Murdoch, approaching his 90th birthday, remain cautious.

The big story that day, as it had been every day in the two weeks since the election, was election theft, and now Rudolph W. Giuliani was giving a news conference at the Republican National Committee. With Sidney Powell, the right-wing attorney and conspiracy theorist, at his side, Giuliani, sweating profusely, black hair dye dripping down the side of his face, spun a wild fantasy about Joe Biden’s stealing the election from President Donald J. Trump. Dizzying in its delusional complexity, it centered on a supposed plot by the Clinton Foundation, George Soros and associates of Hugo Chávez to convert Trump votes into Biden votes by way of software from Smartmatic and voting machines from Dominion Voting Systems.

Murdoch wasn’t pleased. He had built the most powerful media empire on the planet by understanding what his audience wanted and giving it to them without fear or judgment. But Trump now appeared to be making a serious bid to overturn a legitimate election, and his chaos agents — his personal lawyer Giuliani chief among them — were creating dangerous new appetites. Now Murdoch was faced with holding the line on reporting the facts or following his audience all the way into the land of conspiracy theories. Neither choice was necessarily good for business. At 5:01 p.m. London time, he sent an email to his friend Saad Mohseni — an Afghan Australian media mogul sometimes referred to as the Afghan Rupert Murdoch — from his iPhone. “Just watched Giuliani press conference,” he wrote. “Stupid and damaging.” Shortly after, he sent another email, this one to his Fox News chief executive, Suzanne Scott: “Terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear. Probably hurting us, too.”

Murdoch had for weeks — for years, really — avoided making a choice. Trump and his supporters were already furious at Fox News for being the first network to call Biden the victor in Arizona, and two newer cable networks were offering them a version of reality more fully on Trump’s terms. One of them, Newsmax, was moving up in the ratings while refusing to call Biden the winner. When Murdoch’s own paper, The Wall Street Journal, reported a few days before Giuliani’s news conference that Trump allies were considering pouring money into Newsmax to help it mount a stiffer challenge to Fox, Murdoch alerted Scott to the piece. Fox would have to play this just right, he said in an email. Take Giuliani with “a large grain of salt,” he wrote, but also be careful not to “antagonize Trump further.”

The network’s coverage of the Giuliani news conference showed just how impossible this balancing act would be. Immediately afterward, a Fox News White House correspondent, Kristin Fisher, went to the network’s camera position outside the West Wing and fact-checked the allegations. “So much of what he said was simply not true,” she told Fox viewers. Giuliani, she said, provided no hard proof for a claim that “really cuts to the core of our democratic process.” Fox’s opinion hosts, who had been broadcasting the Giuliani-Powell Dominion fantasies to varying degrees themselves — some appearing to endorse them outright — had been complaining internally that the news division’s debunking efforts were alienating the core audience.

An executive at the Fox Corporation, the network’s parent company, had recently started a brand protection effort to, among other tasks, “defend the brand in real time.” After Fisher’s segment, the group sent an alert to top news executives. In a follow-up email, Scott vented to a deputy. “I can’t keep defending these reporters who don’t understand our viewers and how to handle stories,” she wrote. “We have damaged their trust and belief in us.” One of Fisher’s bosses told her that she needed to do a better job of “respecting our audience,” and Fisher later complained of feeling sidelined.

Dominion is now arguing in its seismic defamation lawsuit against Fox that the network had by then made its choice: It would amplify a lie to maintain its audience. Dominion is now seeking $1.6 billion in damages from the news network and its parent company in a defamation trial that — barring a settlement — is scheduled to start in Delaware this month. (Smartmatic is also suing, seeking $2.7 billion, with a trial date pending. In both cases, Fox is arguing that its actions are protected by the First Amendment.) Losses in either or both cases would represent a big hit to the balance sheet of the Fox Corporation, which reported a net income of $1.2 billion in 2022. But the case is about matters more existential than Fox’s bottom line.

Dominion’s pretrial court filings have already provided a rare look inside the company’s decision-making process throughout the election crisis that preceded the Jan. 6 insurrection. The president the network favored was promoting a lie — that Democrats were illegally seizing power through pervasive, systemic voter fraud — to stay in office. That lie excited and angered his supporters, and many of those supporters were also Fox’s core audience. Violence was in the air, the fate of democracy up for grabs. If ever there was a time for Fox News to live up to the journalistic promise still embedded in its name, it was then.

For most of my career as a reporter, I’ve been tracing Fox’s long journey to a dividing line: On one side, journalism, constitutionally protected, even in its nastiest, most slanted and ideological form as part of the brutal scrum of democracy. On the other side, knowing lies, reckless disregard for the truth — the “actual malice” that is at the heart of the Dominion case. The court will decide if Fox crossed that line. But the newly available records show what drove Fox, and its powerful founder, to the very edge of that line, if not beyond: an audience that has reliably delivered influence and profits for decades. Now, in the age of social media and powerfully attractive disinformation campaigns, that audience could instantly move on to even headier stuff from even more adventurous competitors.

Win or lose, Fox News will still face a choice in the coming election and beyond. Do they continue catering, perhaps with more careful lawyering, to paranoid fantasies like those that led to Jan. 6, or do they pull back from the brink?

Murdoch has always understood the value of his audience, in terms of power and in terms of money. For him the choice may be simple. In his Dominion deposition, a lawyer asked him why he did not want to “antagonize” Trump after the election. “He had a very large following,” was Murdoch’s characteristically terse response. “They were probably mostly viewers of Fox, so it would have been stupid.”

The argument Dominion is making against Fox News in Delaware is rooted in a landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision: New York Times Company v. Sullivan. That case established the high hurdle that those in the public eye must clear to win defamation cases. Under that standard, Dominion would have to prove that those responsible for Fox’s broadcast of the wild allegations about Dominion knew they were false, or were so reckless as to have not even asked.

That law was the product of a particular moment in the history of American journalism, when dramatic coverage of the civil rights movement in the nation’s newspapers and television news programs contributed to a broad social revolution. In 1960, The Times ran an advertisement from a group of civil rights activists calling out police activity in Montgomery, Ala. Some of the factual assertions in the ad the were false, and a local public-safety official named L.B. Sullivan sued for defamation. The Times might have been negligent in letting the falsehoods appear in print, but the Supreme Court would decide that news organizations need some room for error as they maintain their vital role of holding public figures accountable. At the time, powerful authorities like Sullivan could use the threat of an easy defamation suit to discourage such scrutiny — he had, after all, won in the Alabama courts. Public figures, the justices ruled, should be able to prevail in defamation suits only if they could show they were falsely maligned out of “actual malice” — that is, “with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.” The case sparked a new era of hard-hitting journalism. Reporters used their newfound protection to provide unvarnished coverage of segregationists, America’s failing war in Vietnam and the crimes of President Richard M. Nixon, forcing his resignation.

Murdoch bought his first American papers in 1973, as this was all unfolding. Thanks to the Sullivan decision, he found himself in a country with press protections far stronger and more far-reaching than the laws he operated under in Britain or Australia, where he got his start as a publisher. Nonetheless, he was skeptical of the crusading work it spawned. In his view, American journalism had gone off track, becoming too taken with “the self-indulgence of intellectual showmanship,” as he told an interviewer.

Murdoch saw an underserved audience, one that loved Nixon, wanted the United States to fight on to victory in Vietnam, was wary of the changes brought by the civil rights movement and, perhaps as much as anything else, had a secret yen for the lurid, the titillating and the sensational. “We’re not here to pass ourselves off as intellectuals,” Murdoch said. “We’re here to give the public what they want.”

His first attempt to give them what they wanted came in San Antonio, where he bought a stodgy afternoon daily called The News and turned it into what he called “a screamer.” The News delivered blazing headlines about rape and murder and the latest anxiety-provoking oddity — “armies of insects,” for instance, poised to invade San Antonio. The articles were often wildly exaggerated, and even his own publisher confessed to a reporter that he had the “gnawing feeling” that accuracy was slipping. Local leaders protested, including Emil Peters, the chief of the San Antonio Police Department, who complained that Murdoch was falsely portraying the city as “a crime capital.” Peters could sue the paper, but — thanks to Sullivan’s high bar of actual malice — he would have a hard time winning.

Murdoch soon moved on to the real prize, New York City, buying the The New York Post — one of America’s oldest papers, and at the time one of its dullest. He brought in a young Australian reporter named Steve Dunleavy, and soon enough The Post was a screamer, too. Dunleavy, with his reactionary streak and no-limits approach to getting the story people wanted, pushed every boundary, even if it meant impersonating a cop or a funeral director. “If the reader buys it, it’s moral,” Dunleavy said only half-jokingly. Mayor Abraham Beame, an early subject of Murdoch’s targeted attacks, denounced the publisher’s efforts “to wage political war and engage wantonly in character assassination.” But those efforts did not appear to cross the line of actual malice.

Over time, The Post began to feed the national conservative imagination. By 1994, though, it looked as though even Murdoch had found his limit. Christopher Ruddy, a new writer plucked from the relative obscurity of a conservative journal on Long Island, was making a splash with a series of stories about the death of Vince Foster, the Clinton White House aide who committed suicide. Rival news organizations easily debunked his coverage and the paper was ready to move on. So was Ruddy, who left shortly after. Soon he would be not an employee but a competitor, and ultimately, with his Newsmax television network, a direct threat.

Murdoch had always wanted some degree of respectability, or at least the influence that respectability afforded: He bought The Times of London in 1981 and would go on to buy The Wall Street Journal in 2007. The point was to balance the news and the screaming to reach the biggest possible audience. In 1996, that would become the formula for his most successful media property, the Fox News Channel, which would serve his largest news audience yet: American conservatives who saw no television news network speaking to them. Murdoch and his new chief, Roger Ailes, a television executive and longtime Republican operative, came up with a different kind of television format — news during the day, like the “A section” of a newspaper, opinion at night, like the editorial page — and a clever slogan: “Fair and Balanced.”

Having a proper news division meant sometimes disappointing that audience — for instance, when Fox broke news before the 2000 election that George W. Bush had once been arrested for drunken driving. But as Ailes saw it, conservatives were so delighted to have something addressing their worldview that they would keep flocking to the channel no matter what. “I could have put a dead raccoon on the air this year and got a better rating than last year,” he would say in 2001.

But Ailes, with almost completely free rein from Murdoch, also pushed boundaries. The audience was happy, but it could be happier still. After the Sept. 11 attacks, Ailes embraced the rising nationalism of his viewers, maintaining, as his anchors began wearing American-flag lapel pins, that Fox would not go looking for stories that put a nation at war in a negative light. There would be no crying about civilian deaths in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, no knee-jerk second-guessing of the Bush administration. “I don’t believe that democracy and terrorism are relative things you can talk about, and I don’t think there’s any moral equivalence in those two positions,” Ailes told me at the time. “If that makes me a bad guy, tough luck. I’m still getting the ratings.”

He wasn’t wrong. Just four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Fox overtook CNN as America’s top-rated cable news network, and by the time Barack Obama emerged as a likely presidential contender in early 2007, its audience was bigger than those of CNN and MSNBC combined. Fox had revolutionized television news — and was transforming the nation’s politics as well. It was shifting the way a large portion of Americans thought about war, journalism and one another. Through its top star, Bill O’Reilly, most of all, it had made white, lunch-pail grievance a prime-time entertainment commodity. The producers, especially on the opinion side, were always on the lookout for more things for their viewers to get excited, even angry, about. Sometimes they would go too far.

In one notable case, a right-wing website called Insight falsely reported that Obama attended a Muslim madrasa as a child in Jakarta. The story caught the attention of the hosts on the network’s popular morning talk show, “Fox & Friends,” and one of them asked on air why no one ever mentioned that a potential Democratic presidential contender “was educated in a madrasa.” Anything could have happened there. Had he been educated in a form of Islam that “pretty much hates us”? Under pressure from the newsroom, the show later told viewers that Obama’s office had called to say the report was “absolutely false.” Fox’s vice president for news editorial, a former Time magazine editor named John Moody, put a finer point on it with a memo to the staff warning against lifting unverified reports from the internet. “The hosts violated one of our general rules,” Moody told The Times amid the controversy, “which is know what you are talking about. They reported information from a publication whose accuracy we didn’t know.”

The Muslim story continued to gain ground online. Ruddy, Murdoch’s onetime star at The New York Post, had started his conservative website Newsmax in 1998. His goal, he would say, was to make the site “the Fox News of online,” and the Obama story seemed to offer an opening — “Obama ‘Lying’ About Muslim Past, Expert Says,” read one 2008 headline. Clearly there was still an avid audience for the story. Shortly after it ran, Sean Hannity invited Andy Martin, a far-right gadfly whose work had been featured on, onto his show to discuss Martin’s claim that Obama had spent his early years training for “the radical overthrow of the government.” Again there was a public outcry. At first the network defended the decision, but finally Bill Shine, the network’s vice president for programming, addressed the basic problem: “Having that guy on was a mistake.”

But the problem would not go away. After Obama won, it became increasingly clear that the audience wanted more stories about Democratic perfidy. Executives at Fox would later acknowledge that the network then took a “hard right turn” as the Tea Party galvanized its base audience, and Ailes let his hosts push more. It was around that time that “Hannity & Colmes” became “Hannity.” Ailes also built a new afternoon program around another conservative host, Glenn Beck. In the summer of 2009, Beck shared his belief that Obama had “a deep-seated hatred for white people, or the white culture.” Major advertisers dropped sponsorship of his show. Shine said Beck was speaking for himself, not the network — but this time there was no apology.

Still, even as he was starting to fashion himself as the shadow chief of the Republican Party, Ailes made an effort to demonstrate that he had some limits. In 2010, when Hannity landed in Cincinnati to appear at a Tea Party event, Ailes ordered him to get right back on a flight home to New York. The organizers, charging admission fees, were profiting from the Fox brand, and Fox hosts were not supposed to let themselves be used that way. By the summer of 2011, Beck was out. His overwrought diatribes about George Soros and sundry leftists in the Obama administration were becoming “a branding issue,” as Ailes later explained — and, perhaps more to the point, his ratings were dropping.

With the 2012 presidential election, Fox struggled to maintain an increasingly angry — and fickle — audience. Core viewers didn’t want to believe that Obama was cruising to re-election, and Fox’s hosts and guests told them over and over that they did not have to: The polls showing an Obama victory over his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, were “skewed” by mainstream pollsters with a Democratic bias.

Ailes had long seen every election night as a chance to burnish the news division’s “fair and balanced” bona fides. “Don’t go out there looking like your puppy died,” he would say. But in 2012, viewers’ wishes and reality reached an impasse. As Obama clinched the critical state of Ohio, Karl Rove — George W. Bush’s former political adviser, now a Fox contributor — said the call was premature, keeping audience hopes alive; Megyn Kelly, a rising star from the news side, shut him down mercilessly, marching down to the Fox News decision desk, on camera, to have the team explain why in no uncertain terms Rove was wrong.

In the days that followed Obama’s re-election, Fox’s ratings fell, so much at some points that the network was trailing MSNBC in the key 25-to-54 age demographic, a focus of advertisers. As the discussion about whether and how the network had lost the trust of its audience continued, executives in the news division dropped their most strident poll denier, the political analyst Dick Morris, and sidelined Rove. But another network regular, Donald J. Trump, appeared to draw a different lesson from the election miss. The audience wanted to stay in the world Fox presented the first time.

In 2012, you could see the seeds of Trump’s 2016 victory and even the run-up to the Jan. 6 crisis. The longtime television personality knew his audience — soon to be his base — better than any Fox host, and he did not hesitate to feed it: “More reports of voting machines switching Romney votes to Obama,” Trump tweeted before voting had even ended; then afterward, “Let’s fight like hell to stop this great and disgusting injustice,” and “We can’t let this happen, we should march on Washington and stop this travesty” and “This election is a total sham and a travesty. We are not a democracy!”

Trump, with his flagrant disregard for facts, presented every news organization with significant challenges. For Fox, the problem was even trickier. Trump had a particularly strong hold on its core audience members. Would Fox follow them down the rabbit hole? By the time he clinched the 2016 Republican nomination, they had choices. For the first time, there were other options for conservative news consumers on television — Newsmax, which Ruddy had brought to cable in 2014, and One America News Network, which made its debut in 2013. The new networks were “barely a blip,” one Fox executive would say dismissively. In the early summer of that year, Ailes came under scrutiny for serial sexual harassment and abuse at the network, which would lead to his ouster; after the Murdochs forced Ailes out that July, he became an informal political adviser to Trump. Hannity was acting as an informal adviser to Trump, too, crossing Ailes’s onetime line. Quietly, that August, the network dropped its defining slogan: “Fair and Balanced.”

The ratings soared higher, and more obstacles fell away. James Murdoch, then in a contest with his brother, Lachlan, to succeed Rupert at the top of the empire, argued that Fox should impose stricter journalistic standards and dial down its pro-Trump coverage to avoid brand troubles for the Fox Corporation’s movie business and ease any plans for expansion. Rupert picked Lachlan, who thought holding the current course was a no-brainer. Murdoch sold the studios to Disney, and James went out on his own. Fox News became an increasingly important profit driver of the family business.

Fox’s opinion hosts were drawing ever closer to Trump’s inner circle, and their bosses seemed less willing than ever to pull them back. In one especially striking moment at a rally for the 2018 midterm elections, Hannity stood next to Trump at his presidential lectern, pointed to the reporters in the back of the hall — including Fox’s Kristin Fisher — and called them “fake news.” The reporters on the news side were furious. The network issued a tepid statement that it did not “condone talent participating in political events.” During a lunch with Suzanne Scott and Jay Wallace, Fox New’s executive editor, the network’s leading news anchors — among them Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum — urged the bosses to bring disciplinary action. But nothing appeared to come of it. Hannity continued to help Trump into the next campaign year, even as the brand-name journalists were heading for the door. Carl Cameron, a senior political correspondent, had already left in August 2017, later saying the network’s journalists were being drowned out by “partisan misinformation” from the opinion side. The anchor Shepard Smith left in 2019 and would go on to cite similar complaints.

This was the company, and the audience, that were confronted by Trump’s election lie in 2020. The president could create and distribute a story in real time, and Fox could track the viewer response minute by minute. What it found was exactly what Trump intuited after Romney’s loss in 2012: The audience wanted the election lie. When Fox stopped giving it to the audience, there was an instant falloff. That falloff came quickly after Fox News became the first network to call the state of Arizona for Biden in 2020, undermining his contention that he was winning. The president and viewers were furious, and competitors were ready to take them away.

Murdoch had stood by the Arizona call, even as the White House, behind the scenes, called him to question it. A few days later, after Fox News and all of its competitors called the election for Biden, the consequences were becoming clear. “Getting creamed by CNN!” Murdoch wrote to Scott. “Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it. Hard enough for me!” Scott, who had been at the network during the Romney election-night fiasco, had told Murdoch that the “first 72 hours will be the worst of it.” But CNN was not the only competition now. Newsmax was coming in hard and fast. “Fox is having something of an identity crisis, and I don’t know if they know the country as well as we do here,” boasted its star anchor, Greg Kelly, a former Fox News correspondent. Kelly “had over 1 million total viewers on Newsmax,” the president of the Fox Business network, Lauren Petterson, wrote to a colleague. “I see it,” the colleague responded. “Jesus.”

The network’s biggest stars saw it too. “We certainly have gone against the customer is always right,” a Fox colleague wrote to Carlson. “But hopefully our product is strong enough to withstand.” Carlson later replied, “With Trump behind it, an alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.” The route back was clear. As a producer later wrote to associates: “Don’t know how closely you’ve looked at our charts this week, but audience much more interested in voter irregularities than covid hypocrisy or race/Obama book tour.”

In fact, the first Fox News host to detail the supposed Dominion plot, Maria Bartiromo, was grabbing big ratings as she treated its intricacies seriously. (“Sidney, I want to ask you about these algorithms and the Dominion software,” she said to Sidney Powell.) Another host, Lou Dobbs of Fox Business, was doing the same as other Dominion allegations spread across other shows.

Emails and texts turned over during discovery show that Scott and Wallace, and so many others at the network, had been informed it was all false. Dominion representatives and then lawyers were pelting the network with fact-checks and finally legal warnings. “Lies,” a Dominion representative, Tony Fratto, wrote to Wallace at one point. Yet the network seemed trapped by the viewer expectations it helped set; attempts to address the preposterousness of the whole conspiracy theory would draw blowback and new attacks from rivals. In late November, Tucker Carlson gave it a shot, telling his audience that Powell was failing to provide any evidence for her conspiracy theory. Even then, he qualified it: “It doesn’t mean it didn’t happen,” he said. “It might have happened.” And he still took a hammering online.

If they didn’t want it from Carlson — who was at the same time seeding other false notions about voter fraud — they certainly didn’t want it from the news correspondents, who were not. It was then that Fox’s journalists began hearing about “respect” for the audience. What the journalists didn’t understand was that in all the news-side election calling and debunking, “the audience feels like we crapped on them,” Scott explained to her deputy. They were going to have to rebuild trust.

An executive at Fox News, who would speak about the court proceedings only on the condition of anonymity, said that showing “respect” did not mean relinquishing the job of debunking the false reports. In the executive’s view, those who were drawing Scott’s ire were being unduly “snarky” in doing so and appeared to be “talking down to” viewers and “even rolling their eyes.”

But for all the executives’ venting about a lack of “respect” among Fox journalists, what is not apparent in the emails is any dressing down of those on the staff who were spreading the falsehoods. There is certainly no obvious concern about what the anger that was stemming from the belief in those falsehoods might lead to. As a producer texted to Bartiromo in late November: “To be honest, our audience doesn’t want to hear about a peaceful transition. They still have hope.”

A number of well-regarded First Amendment lawyers have called the Dominion case among the strongest they have ever seen. The documents produced in discovery go far in establishing that people on virtually every level of the company knew that the allegations about Dominion were wrong yet for weeks did nothing to cut them off. But a victory would still require meeting an extraordinarily high bar.

In a pretrial hearing in Delaware in mid-March, lawyers for Fox argued that the network was merely reporting claims being made by the president of the United States, as is the protected right of all journalists. Moreover, they argued, the issue isn’t whether Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch or, for that matter, Suzanne Scott and Jay Wallace knew that the network was promoting bogus information. It is whether the people who directly controlled the shows knew the charges to be false. Texts between Maria Bartiromo and her producer, for instance, suggest that they actually believed much of what Powell was saying about Dominion. (In a statement, the company said that the emails don’t provide a full view of its operations and that Dominion is using selective quotes to “smear Fox News and trample on free speech and freedom of the press.”) The question, though, is that even if the Fox defense were to pass muster with a Delaware jury, has this been enough of a scare to make Fox News change tactics — to call a lie a lie even when that lie is capturing the passions of its core viewers? The answer will go a long way toward determining what the 2024 presidential election will look like.

The Dominion lawsuit, filed in 2021, at first seemed to produce little effect at the network, which may well have assumed that this suit, like most defamation cases, would crash on the shoals of Times V. Sullivan. Fox Business fired Lou Dobbs in February 2021, but Fox News had also already declined to renew the contract of Bill Sammon, one of the executives involved in the Arizona decision. (“Maybe best to let Bill go right away,” Murdoch wrote in an email to Scott. It would “be a big message with Trump people.”)

A few months later, Tucker Carlson began promoting his “Patriot Purge” documentary, portraying the Jan. 6 insurrection as a result not of the boiling rage he helped feed with his ample coverage of “dead voters” (who weren’t dead) and a rigged system, but of a “false flag” staged by federal authorities. That was followed by the exit of one of the network’s most respected anchors, Chris Wallace. “When people start to question the truth,” he later told The Times, “I find that unsustainable.”

In more recent months, with the Dominion trial looming, Fox has sent mixed signals about its future. In the 2022 midterms, the network didn’t spend a lot of time promoting the electoral conspiracy theories of the huge slate of 2020 election deniers who won the Republican Party’s nominations. In battleground states, nearly all of them would lose in the general election. Yet even as the Dominion case began producing reams of embarrassing texts and emails, Carlson presented “exclusive” and selective Capitol Hill security video to dispute that Jan. 6 was an insurrection and reassert that the 2020 election was “unfairly conducted.” Bret Baier, Fox’s lead news anchor, ran a segment that was critical of Carlson’s report. When I caught up with him recently, he said he has always been free to report the news as he sees fit, without interference from his bosses. But journalism is about getting the story right in the first place, not just straightening it out afterward. There, of course, lies the path toward actual malice.

As Trump ramps up his 2024 campaign, he is picking up right where he left off. He is running on the same line that the last election was stolen, with a new, base-enraging twist that his political enemies are persecuting him with phony criminal cases over his efforts to force state officials in Georgia to give him the win that voters didn’t; his payoff to the porn star Stormy Daniels; his mishandling of classified documents.

In recent months, Lachlan and Rupert have telegraphed their opposition to Trump and their preference for his leading opponent, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — most substantially by keeping Trump off their network. But the polls in recent weeks have shown Trump surging. The unofficial embargo broke in late March, when Hannity interviewed Trump in front of a live audience.

The network says it has installed new editorial oversight across all its platforms. But that system will be up against the network’s very nature. The facts are clear to all. “Trump insisting on the election being stolen and convincing 25% of Americans was a huge disservice to the country,” Murdoch wrote to Scott on Jan. 20, 2021, the day Biden became president. “Pretty much a crime. Inevitable it blew up Jan. 6th.” But what will Murdoch and his employees make of the facts? What will happen when everything is on the line again and that audience wants Trump on Trump’s terms again? Fox could deny them. It could promote the truth, inform its viewers and serve the First Amendment role that the justices in Times v. Sullivan so carefully defined and protected. But that might antagonize Trump and his audience. And, at least as Murdoch had explained to Dominion’s lawyers, doing that would be stupid.

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