Fox Leaders Wanted to Break From Trump but Struggled to Make It Happen

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

“Considering how important Fox News has been as a megaphone for Donald Trump,” she said, it was time “to take a stance.” Ms. Dias, who sounded shaken by the riot, said she thought Fox News and the nation faced “an existential moment.”

As quickly as the two Murdochs began discussing how to respond, their bind became evident.

“Just tell her we have been talking internally and intensely,” Rupert Murdoch, whose family controls the company, wrote in an email. Fox News, he told his son, “is pivoting as fast as possible.” But he sounded a note of caution: “We have to lead our viewers, which is 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 handle the man and the movement they helped create.

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

For the most part, Mr. Murdoch has been wildly successful at striking the balance. Fox converted Mr. Trump’s mass following into loyal viewers who deliver Mr. Murdoch and his shareholders huge profits.

A 2018 headline about President Donald J. Trump that was displayed outside Fox News studios in New York.Credit…Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

But the emails among the Murdochs and the senior leadership of their companies, along with depositions of both men as part of the case, revealed just how Fox and its leaders strained to push back against Mr. Trump when he began spreading unfounded claims about widespread election fraud.

The leadership of Fox and its star hosts are often viewed from the outside as power brokers in Republican politics — with much justification. But in the wake of the election, they appeared fearful of alienating Mr. Trump’s supporters, court filings containing internal communications and depositions show.

Privately, the executives and hosts expressed despair and disgust at the Trump associates who were using Fox News’s platforms to spread bogus allegations of voter fraud. Yet the wishes of the audience — or how the network’s executives interpreted them — dictated which guests were booked, what kind of new programming was created, what correspondents could say on the air and even which people lost their jobs, according to the details in a 212-page brief that Dominion filed in a Delaware state court this week.

Understand the Events on Jan. 6

  • Timeline: On Jan. 6, 2021, 64 days after Election Day 2020, a mob of supporters of President Donald J. Trump raided the Capitol. Here is a close look at how the attack unfolded.
  • A Day of Rage: Using thousands of videos and police radio communications, a Times investigation reconstructed in detail what happened — and why.
  • Lost Lives: A bipartisan Senate report found that at least seven people died in connection with the attack.
  • Jan. 6 Attendees: To many of those who attended the Trump rally but never breached the Capitol, that date wasn’t a dark day for the nation. It was a new start.

Fox News has expressed confidence that Dominion’s claims will fall apart once their full context becomes apparent at the trial. “Dominion blatantly misconstrued the facts by cherry-picking sound bites, omitting key context and mischaracterizing the record,” a Fox News spokeswoman said.

As it became evident that some of Fox’s audience was turning against it after it projected President Biden’s victory, and viewers started switching to hard-right alternatives like Newsmax, people inside the network scrambled to stanch the bleeding.

Even as executives raised concerns about Mr. Trump to one another, they came down hard on those seen as too tough on him.

Eleven days after the election, for instance, Lachlan Murdoch became irritated watching the Fox News correspondent Leland Vittert’s reporting on a pro-Trump rally in Washington, considering it too critical. Mr. Murdoch called Mr. Vittert’s coverage “smug and obnoxious” in a message to Suzanne Scott, chief executive of Fox News Media. 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 down the food chain, the executive in charge of Fox’s weekend programming, David Clark, also weighed in, telling a colleague in an email that he had texted Mr. Vittert “and told him to cut it out.”

To Lachlan Murdoch, there seemed to be no detail too small to complain about if he believed it was hurting the bond that Fox News had forged with its audience over the years. He also complained to Ms. Scott at one point about what he saw as the negative tone toward Mr. Trump in the chyron — the block of text that appears at the bottom of the screen. It was too wordy, he said, and too negative about the president.

Lachlan Murdoch complained that a Fox News reporter’s coverage of a pro-Trump was “smug and obnoxious.”Credit…Mike Cohen for The New York Times

Rupert Murdoch offered Ms. Scott suggestions on booking guests who were known to Trump supporters as loyal defenders. One person he proposed in late November 2020 was the former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn, who had 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’s filing says, Mr. Flynn appeared on Maria Bartiromo’s Fox Business program.

The elder Mr. Murdoch also told Ms. Scott to get rid of a senior Fox News manager, Bill Sammon, telling her that it would go a long way with the former president’s core supporters. “Maybe best to let Bill go right away,” he told Ms. Scott on Nov. 20. Mr. Sammon ran the network’s Washington bureau and oversaw the unit that was responsible for Fox’s early — and correct — decision to project that Mr. Biden would win Arizona. That call had infuriated Mr. Trump and his supporters.

Mr. Murdoch explained to Ms. Scott that the firing would “be a big message with Trump people.” According to the Dominion brief, Mr. Sammon was told that he was being let go that same day.

As Fox executives stamped out skepticism of Mr. Trump in the network’s coverage, they also grew disillusioned with the increasing amount of “crazy” on their airwaves, as Rupert Murdoch described the Trump legal adviser Sidney Powell in an email to a friend, according to the legal filings. By early December 2020, as Mr. Trump’s claims of being cheated grew more far-fetched, Mr. Murdoch acknowledged how difficult it had become to continue delivering coverage that didn’t insult loyal, pro-Trump viewers without stating the obvious: The president was lying to them about his loss.

In one message to Ms. Scott, Mr. Murdoch lamented Mr. Trump’s performance at a rally in Georgia where he called for Gov. Brian Kemp to help overturn the election, as well as other recent comments from the president. “All making it harder to straddle the issue! We should talk through this,” he wrote.

After Jan. 6, 2021, as hopes among many conservatives skeptical of Mr. Trump swelled that the Republican Party might finally be done with him, some of his biggest stalwarts inside Fox News seemed to be backing away from him — even the 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, the former Republican speaker of the House and a Fox Corporation board member. Mr. Murdoch explained that the host had been “privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers.”

For a time, at least. It did not take long for Mr. Hannity and other prime-time hosts, including Tucker Carlson, to begin talking about the attack and its aftermath as Mr. Trump and his supporters preferred.

In the opening monologue of one of his shows in June 2022, with a congressional investigation into the assault in full swing, Mr. Hannity told his audience, “January 6 is just another excuse to smear Donald Trump and anyone who supports them.”

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