‘The Whole Thing Seems Insane’: New Documents Shed Light on Debate Inside Fox After Election

It had been more than a week since the news networks projected that Joseph R. Biden Jr. would become the next president. And Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were at a loss about what to say on the air.

“What are we all going to do tmrw night?” Ms. Ingraham, the host of the 10 p.m. show on Fox News, asked her colleagues in a text message chain on Nov. 16, 2020.

Mr. Carlson responded that he planned to devote a significant chunk of his program to a little-known voting technology company that had become a target of Trump supporters who suspected the election had been rigged: Dominion Voting Systems.

“Haven’t said a word about it so far,” Mr. Carlson said, acknowledging that the conspiracy theories about Dominion’s purported role in a plot to siphon away votes from President Donald J. Trump were making him uneasy.

“The whole thing seems insane to me,” he wrote. “And Sidney Powell won’t release the evidence. Which I hate.” Ms. Powell, a legal adviser to the Trump campaign, was “making everyone paranoid and crazy, including me,” Mr. Carlson added.

Text messages like these, which were released on Tuesday evening as part of the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit that Dominion filed against Fox News, offer some of the clearest evidence yet about the serious misgivings that many inside the network expressed to one another even as they were telling their audiences of millions a very different story of fraud and malfeasance at the polls.

Some Fox hosts and guests have continued to air claims about widespread election fraud and advance a revisionist account of what happened during the riot at the Capitol — few more so than Mr. Carlson, whose evolution from skeptic to election denier was on full display in the newly disclosed messages.

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This week, the host broadcast selectively edited footage he was given by Speaker Kevin McCarthy that tried to recast the attack as little more than what Mr. Carlson said was an “orderly and meek” procession of curious sightseers who were rightfully upset with how the election was conducted.

Mr. Carlson — whose text messages from November 2020 show he ridiculed claims about a plot to steal the election as “shockingly reckless” and “absurd” — also continued to give credence to lies about widespread voter fraud this week. “The protesters were angry,” Mr. Carlson said on his Monday program. “They believed that the election they had just voted in had been unfairly conducted, and they were right.”

He added, without providing any specifics: “In retrospect, it is clear the 2020 election was a grave betrayal of American democracy. Given the facts that have since emerged about that election, no honest person can deny it.”

Some Republicans, who often take pains to avoid appearing critical of powerful pro-Trump figures like Mr. Carlson, rebuked the host on Tuesday for his comments about election fraud and the attack on the Capitol. Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said he stood by a statement issued by the chief of the Capitol Police, who called the host’s comments “offensive and misleading” and based on footage that was “conveniently cherry-picked from the calmer moments” of the 41,000 hours of tape.

“With regard to the presentation on Fox News last night, I want to associate myself entirely with the opinion of the chief of the Capitol Police about what happened on Jan. 6,” Mr. McConnell said. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who was his party’s nominee for president in 2012, called Mr. Carlson’s broadcast “dangerous and disgusting.”

A Fox News spokeswoman said in a statement on Tuesday that Dominion had used “distortions and misinformation” in its recent filings by misattributing quotes and leaving out context in an attempt to smear the network.

“We already know they will say and do anything to try to win this case, but to twist and even misattribute quotes to the highest levels of our company is truly beyond the pale,” the spokeswoman said.

The messages also show how Fox hosts like Mr. Carlson and Ms. Ingraham were furious at their colleagues on the Fox News decision desk, the group that calls elections for the network, whose early prediction that Mr. Biden would win Arizona unleashed the ire of Mr. Trump and his supporters.

Ms. Ingraham said the work of the decision desk was an inside job, intended to sabotage conservative hosts like her. “We are all officially working for an organization that hates us,” she fumed.

The lawsuit filed by Dominion poses a serious threat to Fox’s business and reputation. Although libel cases against media organizations are historically hard to win, the recent documents show the mounting evidence Dominion has so far gathered to persuade a jury of its central claim: that Fox knew the election fraud claims were false but recklessly promoted them anyway.

But it is not a full picture. The documents were extensively redacted by Fox lawyers, leaving much of what people said to one another under seal. The New York Times and several other media outlets are challenging the legality of those redactions.

Lawyers for Fox say that the network was merely reporting on newsworthy events, covered by the First Amendment, by airing Mr. Trump’s allegations, and have provided some examples where hosts pushed back on the claims or added a caveat that evidence of the fraud had not yet been produced.

The revelations from the documents have reverberated among conservatives, though conservative media has largely stayed far away from reporting on the specifics of the case. Mr. Trump has taken aim at Mr. Murdoch on multiple occasions in the past week on his social app, Truth Social, labeling him and his supporters “MAGA Hating Globalist RINOs.” (RINO stands for “Republican in name only.”) In a post on March 2, Mr. Trump said: “Rupert Murdoch should apologize to his viewers and readers for his ridiculous defense of the 2020 Presidential election.”

“He should also apologize to those anchors who got it right, and fire the ones who got it wrong, or were afraid to speak up (of which there were many!),” he added.

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