Opinion: What Fox News says when you’re not listening

File photo/Mark Lennihan/The Associatedc Press / A headline about President Donald Trump is displayed outside Fox News studios on Nov. 28, 2018, in New York. The voting machine company Dominion filed court papers documenting that numerous Fox News personalities knew there was no evidence to support voter fraud claims peddled by Trump's allies, but aired them anyway on the nation's most-watched cable network.

People who remember Fox News host Tucker Carlson as a bow-tied creature of establishment Washington often wonder what happened to him. Twenty years ago, he was a preppy Beltway habitue and impishly libertarian magazine writer. Now he's the sneering, conspiracy-obsessed host of what The New York Times called possibly the "most racist show in the history of cable news."

As the Times wrote, there's a long-running debate about "whether Mr. Carlson's show is merely lucrative theater or an expression of his true values." As an explosive new court filing in Dominion Voting Systems' defamation lawsuit against Fox News demonstrates, in trying to explain why Carlson and many of his colleagues do what they do, we shouldn't underestimate simple greed.

The brief, a motion for summary judgment in a case stemming from Fox News' egregiously false claims of Dominion-abetted election fraud, offers a portrait of extravagant cynicism. It reveals how obsessed Carlson and other leading Fox News figures were with audience share, and their fear of being outflanked by even further-right outlets such as Newsmax.

As the Dominion filing lays out, there was panic at Fox News over viewer backlash to the network correctly calling Arizona for Joe Biden on election night. Despite its accuracy, the call was viewed, internally, as a catastrophe.

"Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we've lost with our audience?," Carlson texted his producer. He added, "An alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us." Sean Hannity, in an exchange with fellow hosts Carlson and Laura Ingraham, fretted about the "incalculable" damage the Arizona projection did to the Fox News brand and worried about a competitor emerging: "Serious $$ with serious distribution could be a real problem."

When Fox News reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked Trump's wild claims about Dominion on Twitter, Carlson was enraged and tried to get her fired. "It needs to stop immediately, like tonight," he texted Hannity. "It's measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke." (Heinrich kept her job but deleted the tweet.)

The network knew, of course, that Trump's lawyer Sidney Powell, a chief promoter of Dominion conspiracy theories, was a delusional fantasist. The legal brief reveals that some of her claims about Dominion were based on an email Powell had received from someone who claimed to be capable of "time travel in a semiconscious state." On Nov. 18, 2020, Carlson told Ingraham: "Sidney Powell is lying by the way. Caught her. It's insane." Ingraham wrote back that Powell was a "complete nut."

At one point, Carlson did express skepticism of Powell on air, noting on Nov. 19 that she had never produced evidence for her claims. "Maybe Sidney Powell will come forward soon with details on exactly how this happened, and precisely who did it," he said, adding, "We are certainly hopeful that she will."

It's certainly true that all cable news shows program with ratings in mind. MSNBC -- where, full disclosure, I'm a contributor -- pays much closer attention to various Trump scandals than to climate change or the war in Ukraine because it's catering to its audience. But there is no analogue for the way Fox News treats its viewers.

In addition to MSNBC, in the past I've appeared a number of times on CNN. Sometimes hosts are a little saltier when the cameras aren't rolling, but I don't recall ever hearing any daylight between the views they express on air and off. Fox News is unique in its bad faith.

"Respecting this audience whether we agree or not is critical," Hannity texted Nov. 24. It's a version of respect indistinguishable from contempt.

The New York Times