Fox News Still Broadcasts Election Lies. It Could Cost Them.
KASIN: Hey, this is Kasin (ph), where I'm currently sitting in a parking garage in Eugene, Ore., after finally completing my awfully long hour-and-a-half commute to the University of Oregon, where I'm a student pursuing my degree in political science. This podcast was recorded at...
SCOTT DETROW, HOST:
Wow, that is a really long commute. I guess you can listen to a lot of podcasts. It's 1:09 Eastern on Wednesday, March 8.
KASIN: Things may have changed by the time you hear it. So OK, here's the show.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DETROW: Well, we've got you for 15 minutes of your next commute at least.
Hey there, it's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House. And today, I am joined by Bente Birkeland of Colorado Public Radio. Hey, Bente.
BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: Hey.
DETROW: It is good to have you back on the podcast. We also have NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. David, you are taking a pause from nonstop reading of depositions right now, and I appreciate that.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Yeah, this is my rest and relaxation right here - it's talking to you good people.
DETROW: And those depositions are at the heart of what we're talking about today because, nearly 2 1/2 years after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, we are still seeing the fallout from his refusal to accept defeat and the millions of people who bought into the lie that Trump somehow won the election. And a major source of those lies has been Fox News. In recent weeks, legal documents have uncovered startling evidence and testimony showing that key figures at Fox News knew full well that Trump lost, but they went along with these lies anyway.
I mean, David, we're going to get into the context of how all this information is coming out shortly. But let's just talk about what you have learned from reading through all of this and from doing reporting around these documents. Tell us about the environment at Fox News in the immediate wake of the election and the calculations that executives and hosts were making about how to frame what had just happened.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, it was really less an environment and more like a war zone.
FOLKENFLIK: I mean, it - metaphorically, we're talking about civil war inside Fox. And fundamentally, it's between people who want to present the truth and the facts to their audiences and people who are keenly aware of the fact that doing so will cause a horrible rupture with their audiences, which are effectively, you know, Donald Trump's voters. And that was attested to by none other than Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch in his sworn statements that he made to lawyers under oath. You saw in these documents the primetime hosts of Fox - the most - among the most popular people on the network - Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson - talking not only contemptuously, but angrily about their colleagues on the reporting side of the ledger who wanted to fact-check these claims of election fraud that were permeating a lot of the shows on Fox, even as these same people were talking about how the people that were being put on the air by Fox were kind of nuts - people like lawyers for President Trump's campaign, like Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani - and that they had contempt for Trump himself at times.
DETROW: Over and over again, there are texts or emails that boil down to - this is hurting us so much. And what this is is the reporting of facts - right? - the reporting that - the early call that Arizona was going to go to Joe Biden's column - the facts surrounding the fact that Biden had won the election.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, that - if you talk about Arizona, that's really the original sin. It's done on election night. And the real problem for Fox is not that they projected that Arizona would be won by Joe Biden, but that they were the first...
FOLKENFLIK: ...TV network to do so, which meant that Trump and Trump's viewers and Trump supporters and Fox's audience were saying, why the heck are you the guys telling us this? No, no, no. You should be telling us the opposite. And there was a rupture. Look, the Fox executives and the Fox stars weren't wrong about that. But the journalists at Fox were trying to kind of present those facts and continue to do so when the Trump campaign started to spin these fantastical lies. And let me tell you, what was really amazing was seeing the people who were on the news side, saying, I'm being punished...
FOLKENFLIK: ...For trying to do my job. You saw two reporters covering politics in the White House - Kristin Fisher and Gillian Turner - saying that basically they had been pulled from slots to guest host significant Fox shows in the wake of them fact-checking some of these bogus claims of fraud. You saw one producer for Bret Baier's political newscast, "Special Report," saying ultimately he had decided to leave the network because, so many times, guests had been pulled from "Special Report" who were willing to put the lie to what Trump and his allies were saying, and he couldn't justify it anymore to his young daughter if he was trying to teach her how to do the right thing.
DETROW: So let's put a pin in just for a moment on all of these revelations about Fox News and the thinking in the immediate wake of the election and talk about why we are learning all of them - the context here. Bente, can you explain to us what's going on here? Dominion Voting Systems, which you have covered pretty extensively, is suing Fox for $1.6 billion, saying all of this broadcasting caused major, major, major damage to their business.
BIRKELAND: That's absolutely right, yeah. And Dominion Voting Systems is based in Denver. And so this is a company that sells voting equipment to nearly 30 states. And it was shortly after the 2020 election that these conspiracies started circulating that the company had switched votes from Trump to Biden. And I covered it very initially early on because one of those big false claims focused on a specific former Dominion employee, and that's Eric Coomer. And these claims said that he was the man who personally manipulated votes across the country. And Coomer was the first person, even before Dominion, to file a defamation lawsuit. So that's ongoing against pro-Trump allies, media outlets, the Trump campaign, Sidney Powell - a whole host of people. And what he's claimed and what Dominion is claiming is that the scope of these lies and the impact it's had on their employees, the culture, all the people who work in elections - Coomer has faced so many death threats and harassment. He's had to go into hiding. He doesn't work for Dominion anymore. So the real-world implications of this mis- and disinformation is - you know, it's so broad in scope, and it's still continuing to this day.
DETROW: Well, what is the quick Fox response in defense of all of this as all of these revelations are being made public?
FOLKENFLIK: So there's multilayers. The - some of the most important ones, quickly, are that they say, look, we were reporting inherently newsworthy claims - that is that there was fraud in national elections - by inherently newsworthy people - that is the then-sitting-president, Trump - and that, were we to inhibit that, even if these claims are wild, then it's going to redound to hurt whomever in the press are doing that at a later point to other major political leaders. In addition, they say Dominion is merely cherry-picking. It's taking things out of context. It's almost misconstruing things to a point where it's putting words into the mouths of people. And this was a more plausible argument until this week, when we had so many hundreds of documents - so many pages to go through. We're still sorting through, and we're still getting more, even as we're taping this right now. I'm seeing them ping on my laptop from lawyers - that what we're learning is sort of like little different tiles being assembled in an enormous mosaic, and the picture is coming closely into view.
And I would tell you, Scott, there are two stories here. One is legal - about the lawsuit. Has Dominion met the legal standard for proving defamation, which is awfully tough and which Fox is right about - may have implications for other news organizations? - and the separate story of what we're learning about this potent business enterprise and political animal that is Fox News that wraps itself in this journalistic bunting.
DETROW: And Bente, you've reported on Dominion, but you've also done a lot of reporting on local elections officials who have felt incredible strain over the last few years. And I think you're a good person to talk to about this. These - you know, these hosts go on these shows and make these claims that they know are not true. People are on the other side, absorbing this information from their TVs, from their phones, and they are taking real-world actions because of them. This is not just something being said into a vacuum. This is rippling out throughout the country.
BIRKELAND: There's plenty of voters I've talked to that, you know, follow the news, but it's not a huge part of their life. And they said, I didn't realize election fraud was such a huge problem in this country until I heard it from President Trump after the election. And we heard this from a former Republican clerk in Colorado, and I've been covering this case from the beginning. She allegedly tampered with her county's Dominion voting machines. This is months after the 2020 election. But she had been hearing from constituents. She's from a county called Mesa County in western Colorado that's very conservative, and people were concerned about voter fraud - asked their county clerk to look into it. She is now facing a trial this summer on 10 state criminal charges. There is an ongoing federal investigation.
Her individual case has had big ramifications for the state, including a new law that was signed that tries to prevent mis- and disinformation and increases penalties for insider election security threats. And we've also seen this change - how clerks do their jobs and the efforts they're taking to fight mis- and disinformation - and also, just from regular voters, less trust in the system, less trust that their votes can count, efforts to audit elections from volunteers going door to door to try to personally see if they can uncover fraud.
So I don't think this is the end of it. I think the temperature's dialed down a little bit, with a lot of the election deniers not making gains nationally, politically, in the last election. But as one clerk said, all it takes is one candidate to ignite this in full force. And people are still spreading this disinformation. There's a big ecosystem that has not gone away.
DETROW: All right. We are going to take a quick break. When we come back, more on all of this, including what the implications are for Fox News's future.
We are back. And David, a lot of the reporting on this has focused around, you know, that critical period in between the election and the inauguration. But it's worth pointing out a lot of this is still going on. In fact, this week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson is making headlines for really warping reality by taking raw security footage that House Republicans gave him and presenting this picture of the January 6 attack on the Capitol as this peaceful gathering that's been overblown, which is clearly not true and is something that many Senate Republicans are saying is not true, and they're pushing back against this presentation.
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, I mean, and let's think about what he's doing there, right? What he's doing is he's attaching himself to the great resentments and the anger and the unfulfillment felt by Trump voters who won't let go of the fiction that somehow Trump was cheated of the election.
So what do you do? You turn away from Trump, and you turn towards, well, January 6 wasn't really an insurrection. January 6 wasn't really violent. We're going to undermine everything that you believe. And Carlson, over the last two years, has put forward these ideas that January 6 was at once this thing that was fostered by either Antifa or FBI agents and, on the other hand, you know, a mere walk in the park by peaceful protesters who happened to stroll toward the Capitol grounds. In so doing, you know, he's pointing the ship of state of Fox - because he is the, really, most prominent voice and face of Fox - right into the waters of disinformation and lies all over again.
You would think that the Dominion case would have chastened Fox, Suzanne Scott, the chief executive, and the Murdochs from doing this. You know, Bret Baier this week, the chief political anchor, had to distance himself and disavow any belief of what Tucker Carlson was essentially saying on his official newscast. But they aren't chastened because they would pay a bigger price, were they to apologize to Dominion on its airwaves, by alienating a vast, you know, swath of its audience than it would embracing these further conspiracy theories.
DETROW: Yeah. So let's back up a bit. This case goes to trial - or is expected to go to trial next month, right?
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah. It's supposed to go to trial in mid-April.
DETROW: What are the big-picture questions that you're looking at here, whether it comes to the future of Fox News or whether it comes to, you know, the tricky, murky area of First Amendment law and libel lawsuits?
FOLKENFLIK: So I'm doing a split-track mind, where I'm thinking about the legal implications. And I've written about the fact that there are some media lawyers - it's not uniform - but some media lawyers who are worried that the news media, reporters writ large, will pay a price if Fox is to lose this case for defamation - that it will make it easier for people to sue successfully and to constrict robust political reporting and speech.
That said, you know, we're also looking for the degree to which Fox News is held to account. And a big jury verdict - you know, saying that they're holding them liable for defaming Dominion and a big dollar figure - does that in a sense. A bigger version would encompass, in some ways, the Murdochs and Fox News acknowledging they got something wrong and did something wrong, apologizing and keeping faith with facts finally, after years, after a lawsuit, after all this scandal. Because what's going to happen, I think, is that they're going to do everything they can to avoid making an apology and a public acknowledgment. They are not even covering this as a story on their own network. Their own audience would know nothing about it if that's what they're relying on for news. And I think they would want to sail ahead, holding as tightly as they can to this audience and take the hit in the rest of the public, which is to say an enormous reputational hit for Fox, stripping it of the veneer of respectability of the conventional journalism that has sort of uneasily embraced Fox as part of the family.
DETROW: Mmm hmm. And Bente, is it fair to say that the people who are incredibly concerned about disinformation and who are thinking about the best way to counter it are paying close attention to this lawsuit as well?
BIRKELAND: Absolutely, because this is a unique approach and one way to combat mis- and disinformation. So I think a lot of people will be looking at this case specifically because, yes, media organizations have a First Amendment right to report the news. That includes repeating what someone may say that's false, but it's - did they cross that line, and did they meet that legal threshold? Because these cases are difficult to win, can Dominion show that Fox News knew a statement was false, had serious doubt about its truthfulness and was, in essence, kind of applauding these falsehoods? So I think, at least in my neck of the woods here in Colorado, a lot of people will be seeing if that meets that legal threshold. Because Dominion has said, look, this viral disinformation campaign has reached millions of people around the world, and the company sees this as a way to set the record straight and have some vindication. And I know that across the political spectrum, and especially in the election world, they're always talking about new approaches to fight disinformation. So a lot of eyes are glued to this case.
DETROW: That is NPR's David Folkenflik and Colorado Public Radio's Bente Birkeland. Thanks to both of you.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
DETROW: I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the White House. And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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