Fox Insiders Admit Even Fox Viewers Don’t Trust Fox

Internal emails reveal hosts and executives admitting their own viewers wouldn't believe Fox if it reported the truth

An unidentified protester outside Fox headquarters in New York on June 14, 2022 -- after the network didn't air the first primetime House hearing on the Jan. 6 attack -- holds a sign showing Fox hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.


(Michael M. Santiago/Getty)

Recently released internal Fox communications don’t just reveal the company’s willingness to amplify lies its leaders knew were toxic to American democracy, the emails and texts also reveal that Fox’s viewers are just like most people – even they don’t trust Fox.

Real trust would have meant that Fox viewers would accept as true what the network told them. But as Fox found out – and admitted internally – that wasn’t the case.

When Fox told its own viewers something unpleasant, Fox viewers didn’t believe it. When Donald Trump’s surrogates said something, Fox viewers believed that, instead; they didn’t believe Fox.

And Fox’s own leaders admitted it. In fact, as their internal communications show, Fox leaders understood that viewers didn’t go to Fox for hard facts, they went to be spoon-fed.

“The network is being rejected,” Sean Hannity texted Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham after the network accurately informed its viewers that Joe Biden had won Arizona and, then, the 2020 presidential race.

And when Executive Chair Rupert Murdoch suggested coordinating a message by Fox’s primetime lineup that Joe Biden won, CEO Suzanne Scott tacitly acknowledged the reality that Fox’s viewers might not trust them.

“I told Rupert that privately [the anchors] are all there [but] we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers,” Scott wrote in an email.

These and other communications were revealed in last week’s legal filing by Dominion Voting Systems, which obtained the Fox communications as part of a lawsuit against the network.

While most coverage of the filing has appropriately emphasized Fox’s revenue-driven push to tell its audience what it wanted to hear, the admission that its audience doesn’t trust Fox enough to accept uncomfortable truths reveals a stark vulnerability for the network and for the right-wing media ecosystem generally.

Even Trump’s team didn’t trust Fox. It’s not unusual for campaigns to complain when an outlet calls a race, but when the outlet is trusted, the campaign is more likely to ask what the outlet knows that the campaign doesn’t.

But the Trump campaign apparently didn’t trust Fox enough to ask about the basis for calling Arizona. They just texted Fox Washington Bureau Chief Bill Sammon: “WAY too soon to be calling Arizona.”

Conservatives generally shared that mistrust. “Lots of conservative criticism of the AZ call,” Fox Corporation Senior Vice President Raj Shah, a former deputy press secretary for Trump, emailed Scott less than an hour after it happened. Conservatives weren’t asking the reason for the call, they immediately assumed Fox got it wrong. Or, possibly, felt that Fox shouldn’t have said it precisely because it was true.

Even on air, Fox implied to its own viewers that they shouldn’t believe what they were hearing on Fox. “You keep telling our viewers that millions of votes were changed by the software,” Carlson told then-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell weeks after the election. “I hope you will prove that very soon,” he added, acknowledging to his viewers that he’d been sharing unfounded allegations.

The underlying message was that, while evidence was worth hoping for, it wasn’t required by Fox’s viewers. Or, therefore, by Fox.

So it didn’t matter that Fox had evidence backing their Arizona call. Fox’s audience didn’t want the truth because that wasn’t why they watched Fox. So when Fox in rare moments abandoned what did matter to its audience, the viewers rebelled.

“Our viewers are also chanting ‘Fox News sucks’,” one internal email said. “Holy cow, our audience is mad at the network,” said another.

Ultimately, viewers believed Fox’s conspiracy-spouting guests over the actual hosts, whenever those hosts tiptoed toward the fact that Biden won fairly.

When then-host Lou Dobbs put Powell on the air on election night, she floated a theory about a CIA supercomputer and vote-changing software. Fox’s viewers understood that it was Powell, not Fox, who was doing the work and was to be trusted. Dobbs was just the platform. “Sydney [sic] Powell just broke the story on Dobbs,” a viewer emailed Fox’s Bret Baier.

Referring to the false narrative coming from Powell and Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Carlson said that Fox’s “viewers are good people and they believe it.” And they did, trusting Trump’s unfounded claims more than the public admonitions by Carlson and others to be skeptical.

“We cannot smirk at our viewers any longer,” Scott, the CEO, said. The reason: Fox had failed to convince its viewers. They trusted Trump and his proxies more than Fox.

So Fox executives blamed the very people they were choosing to put on the air. “[T]hose clowns put us [in] an awkward place,” Fox Senior Vice President of Primetime Programming and Analytics Ron Mitchell wrote.

Typically, journalists leap at the chance to reveal deceptions by powerful people. That proved “awkward” at Fox because the audience trusted the clowns more than the ringmaster.

And it’s not uncommon for viewership to drop off after an election. But Fox’s audience disappeared while a battle raged over the outcome – ostensibly a huge ratings opportunity.

But it wasn’t the prospect of a Trump loss that was demoralizing Fox viewers to the point of turning off their TVs. It was Fox breaking the covenant. As Fox Senior Vice President for Corporate Communications Irena Briganti wrote, “our viewers left this week after AZ.”

As Carlson told Scott, “I’ve never seen a reaction like this, to any media company.”

The reaction was unique because Fox, for the moment, was unique. And that was evident in the network's attempt to recover.

Traditionally, when a media outlet makes a false claim or screws up a story, the redemption process includes a show of transparency about what happened; an admission of error. Layoffs or suspensions might be part of it. That didn't happen at Fox, because screwing up the story wasn't the problem; getting it right was.

While Fox’s higher-ups rhetorically framed the issue as one of trust, their actions revealed a deeper understanding of the bond with their audience. Fox had to reclaim its status as a source not of truth, but of comfort.

“It's a question of trust,” Scott said. But her remedy wasn’t the usual media prescription for a loss of trust, it was a placebo: “[T]he AZ [call] was damaging but we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.”

Murdoch agreed, saying, “needs constant rebuilding without any missteps.”

In the portion of his email disclosed in the filing, Murdoch doesn’t identify what would constitute a misstep, but it’s implied.

Typically, a misstep might involve getting something wrong or covering up the circumstances of the original error. But Fox had gotten it right with Arizona. Getting it right was what repelled Fox’s audience. A misstep would be to get it right again.

So, sure enough, Fox took steps to compensate for the fact that its audience either didn’t trust them, or didn’t care whether the network told the truth. If Fox’s on-air people slipped and shared inconvenient facts, Fox executives – or other on-air personalities – noticed.

When Fox’s Neil Cavuto cut away from then-White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany making baseless election-fraud allegations, Cavuto told his viewers, “unless she has more details to back that up, I can't in good countenance [sic] continue to show you this.”

That, apparently, was a misstep. The branding team operated by Raj Shah, Trump’s former deputy press secretary, notified top corporate leadership of the “Brand Threat” that Cavuto’s editorial judgment represented.

Cavuto’s statements were a threat to the brand because the brand wasn’t based on the “details” Cavuto demanded, but on viewers hearing what they wanted – in this case, McEnany’s unfounded claims.

Carlson, too, stood vigil against more “missteps.” When Fox correspondent Jacqui Heinrich tweeted an accurate fact-check of a Trump claim, Carlson told Hannity: “Please get her fired.”

Neither Carlson nor Hannity in the disclosed communications raise concerns about Heinrich’s integrity or accuracy. The issue was that Fox couldn't convince its viewers she was right.

As Scott, the CEO, later relayed, Hannity complained about potential viewer blowback to Heinrich. “Sean texted me,” Scott wrote, “...[he] doesn't understand how this is allowed to happen from anyone in news. [Heinrich] has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted.”

In other words, Fox’s viewers wouldn’t believe or care that Heinrich got it right. That wasn't why Fox viewers were there.

Another misstep came when Fox’s Kristen Fisher fact-checked Powell and Giuliani. Fisher's boss, Bryan Boughton, wasn’t happy about it. Had Fisher gotten it wrong? No; her misstep, too, was getting it right.

Fisher later wrote that Boughton “emphasized that higher-ups at Fox News were also unhappy with it.” And the remedy wasn't better journalism. Fisher wrote that Boughton told her she “needed to do a better job of…–this is a quote–’respecting our audience.’”

“Respecting the audience” recurs in the Fox communications as a euphemism for telling the audience what they wanted to hear. Hannity explicitly says that respect wouldn’t require honesty: “Respecting this audience whether we agree or not is critical,” he writes.

Producer Justin Wells made the same point in somewhat less refined terms. He wrote, “We can't make people think we've turned against Trump. Yet also call out the bullshit. You and I see through it. But we have to reassure some in the audience.”

Why? Because reassurance was why they watched.

Ironically, other news outlets often benefit when something bad happens – because viewers want to know the facts about it. But not at Fox. As Maria Bartiromo said about her viewers, “It's easier to get good ratings when you are giving your audience something they want to hear.”

And Bartiromo agreed when her producer said, “[O]ur audience doesn't want to hear about a peaceful transition.”

Ultimately, a Fox rival arose that understood all this, with fewer journalistic conceits than even Fox had. And the Fox reaction to Newsmax further established the irrelevance of “trust” in the relationship that Fox had with its viewers.

Lauren Petterson, the president of Fox Business, warned that Newsmax executives “definitely have a strategy across all shows to try to target and steal our viewers.”

If trust had actually been the issue, the Newsmax strategy would have been to strive for factual accuracy, journalistic integrity, and well-crafted reporting on complex and challenging truths. That was not the case – and Fox knew it.

Newsmax posed a threat not because of superior reporting, but because it was now offering Fox viewers what they wanted from Fox.

As Fox executive David Clark recognized about Newsmax, “their hosts were extremely one sided, ignored the facts, they did not seem to care about telling the truth.” To Fox viewers, that was a feature, not a bug – a feature they demanded uninterrupted by any of the “missteps” that managed to slip through at Fox.

Mitchell, the senior vice president of primetime programming and analytics, was even more explicit about what the exodus to Newsmax implied about what viewers had once sought from Fox. And it wasn’t fair and balanced journalism.

“[T]he lack of any meaningful editorial guidance may be a positive for [Newsmax] at least in the short term,” Mitchell wrote, implying that the minimal editorial guidance at Fox was a bug, not a feature.

In fact, Mitchell acknowledged about Newsmax’s unsupported claims, “This type of conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled FNC viewer is looking for.”

He was right. An analysis by Mitchell showed viewers changing channels specifically to watch Powell, the Trump lawyer, on Newsmax. Hannity brought Powell back on.

What Fox leaders didn’t seem to recognize was that they were now having the same experience the “lamestream” media did when Fox first came for their audiences. Viewers didn’t leave to get superior journalism. They wanted an alternative to journalism.

As FNC President Jay Wallace observed, Newsmax “truly is an alternative universe.” He was right. And it was exactly what other media executives had said for years about Fox.

Fox, of course, has succeeded in winning its viewers back. The only difference is that now Fox has been revealed as admitting that its viewers come to Fox not for the truth, but to escape it.

Jonathan Larsen is TYT’s managing editor. You can find him on Twitter @JTLarsen.