Episode Summary

The Australian-American media tycoon Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel has accumulated billions of dollars by stoking and monetizing the rage of a large segment of Americans against their fellow citizens through contrived controversies like “The War on Christmas” and strange obsessions over cartoon characters from SpongeBob SquarePants, LEGO building blocks, and even M&Ms chocolate candy.

But now, for the first time in 27 years, Fox Corporation is facing a real serious threat to its bottom line from Dominion Voting Systems, an election logistics company that launched a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against the right-wing infotainment channel for spreading lies that Dominion had cheated in the 2020 election, which Donald Trump lost to Joe Biden.

But beyond being a serious threat to Fox, the lawsuit’s court filings have also been very illuminative of the internal workings of the right-wing infotainment channel. Thousands of emails and text messages produced in the litigation have shown that Fox’s leadership and hosts think their audience cannot bear to hear too many things that conflict with their false beliefs. They also reveal incontrovertibly that Fox isn’t a news channel. It’s a Republican campaign organization.

In this episode, I’m joined by two reporters who have done a lot of great work covering Fox over the years. Justin Baragona is a senior media reporter at the Daily Beast. Diana Falzone is a contributing editor at the Daily Beast. They just published a fascinating article this week about how the lawsuit disclosures are affecting the employees at Fox.



MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: All right, so, let’s maybe start our discussion off with you today, Justin. So both of you have worked on a number of stories about Fox News over the years. Tell us about your most recent one.

JUSTIN BARAGONA: Okay. So we just worked on a story, it was basically about the fallout internally at Fox amongst what we would call the news division, or what they like to call the straight news side over at Fox.

We spoke to nine different people within that division and got to see what their reaction was, and how they felt like these documents would make their job harder. It impugns their reputation further. All that. And basically, the general consensus was that, yeah, this sucks.

We’re not happy. It’s embarrassing and it kind of makes clear what has been known to many people before, but makes it extremely transparent that this is not a news organization and it’s basically a political operation and a propaganda outlet.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, I think that’s a good summary.

So Diana, you actually used to work at Fox News and unfortunately you are an under a non-disclosure agreement with them. So we can’t discuss your specific time there, but I think it has given you some unique insights into the organization. How are the people inside of Fox handling it from what you’ve seen?

DIANA FALZONE: I departed the network in 2018, and as a media reporter cover a great breadth of different corporations, including Fox News being such a Goliath in cable news. But inside, as Justin stated, we spoke to nine insiders at Fox News and they are extremely disheartened.

One insider called it “soul crushing.” There is a very split divide between the punditry of Fox News and the straight news journalists that really do try to give the facts and present the facts. And we’ve seen in some of these Dominion filings, the fallout that has happened. And I’m sure Justin can talk more about what’s happened to some of those reporters when they did try to push back.

We saw Tucker Carlson was calling for one of these reporters to be fired. This reporter was not fired. She was actually promoted in light of all of this. But we saw with Kristin Fisher that she had pushback of when she was there at her time at Fox, in the filings,

SHEFFIELD: To your point that you were saying in terms of this Fox is known for its, highly conservative programming hosts, but they do have people who are trying to actually report fairly. How do they Diana, how are they reacting to all this?

I mean, on Twitter, a bunch of people have said to me that, well, how could they not have known that Fox News wasn’t a conservative organization?

FALZONE: I spoke to someone who used to be at the company quite recently, and the source was saying that there was a shift, a dramatic shift when President Trump was elected in terms of how things were going to be pushed.

And I think many of the straight news journalists were fighting that fight to be able to keep reporting the facts. We are seeing that very clearly in the fallout with the election fraud claims. There was a lot of pushback from inside. And as the journalists that are there now, they have been fighting, they have been trying to get the facts out to their audience.

But we’re seeing from the higher ups, the executives that there was pushback.

SHEFFIELD: So now Justin, the history of Fox, let’s maybe get into that a little bit for people who don’t know. So, Fox was obviously created by the Australian media billionaire, Rupert Murdoch. But it’s kind of incredible, I feel like that the first president of Fox News, Roger Ailes has just– they’ve so rapidly gotten rid of him. For those who don’t know in the audience who was Roger Ailes and why was he so pivotal to the ethos of Fox News?

BARAGONA: Roger Ailes was the architect of Fox News. Rupert might have been the founder and might have been the one that put the money behind it and wanted to create this sort of conservative alternative to the rest of the mainstream media. But it was Roger Ailes that was the one that whipped it into shape and created what we know of as Fox today.

Of course, it’s, wow, it’s already been seven years since he was let go and it, we already know, most people watching this, I would think, would know that Ailes was let go because of a lot of sexual misconduct allegations that had taken place over the 20 years that he was chief of Fox News.

And then we’d seen more fallout that happened after that with other big-name personalities at Fox. But I think one thing that if we want to just kind of pull back a little bit, one thing that’s kind of apparent here in the Dominion filings is a lot of this stuff wouldn’t have been happening if Roger Ailes was still in charge.

Put this sort of veneer respect. He made sure that he kept things in charge. He wanted to make sure that that they kept the veneer of respectability upon the network when it would come to their news anchors and reporters, that they weren’t going to be bullied or disrespected by the opinion hosts, especially publicly, but definitely not privately like we were seeing right here.

And he wouldn’t let the– it’s a cliché– but he wouldn’t let the inmates run the asylum. He would’ve kind of put a tamp down on like Tucker kind of getting too big for his britches here, in terms of feeling like he’s the king of Fox News now and he can do whatever he wants, he’s going to let them know who’s really in charge here. Which we saw in some of those text messages is how much power that they have, and that they’re going to go ahead and make sure that this stuff isn’t happening from the news side anymore, where they’re fact checking some of these claims or making their making their opinion people look bad.

So, I think that’s one standout thing here in, in these filings is that Suzanne Scott does not, and who is now the CEO of Fox News does not have– not the power that’s not really the right word, but doesn’t have the ability to keep them in line.

SHEFFIELD: She doesn’t have the stature.

BARAGONA: Yeah. I would say stature is a good word there.

But yeah, they know that they could kind of, not run her over, but that she’s going to do what they want, because it’s all about respecting the audience– another term that we heard a lot in these filings. Because at this point they’re actually taken hostage by their viewers rather than, they’re going to do anything to tell them anything different because they need to make sure that they get ratings because ratings is all that matters.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and I do want to come back to that concept of respect the audience. But let’s go to you first, Diana. So, as Justin mentioned, the CEO of Fox News is Suzanne Scott. You wrote a profile of her a little while ago. Tell us, who is Suzanne Scott?

Where did she come from? In media she’s not a person who puts herself forward as much as Roger Ailes, her predecessor, did.

FALZONE: No Suzanne Scott is very much behind the scenes. She has been part of Fox News since the inception under Roger Ailes. She served as his assistant and fully worked up the ranks.

She was put in after Bill Shine was ousted. She was part of the supposed change of Fox News after Ailes was gone in terms of women empowerment, making sure that there was a face of a woman in a prominent position. However, Suzanne Scott has a very muddied past that has been reported upon, not only by myself and then my then colleague at the Daily Beast, Lloyd Grove, but others. And she, right now, is not smelling like a rose in these filings.

SHEFFIELD: The thing about Scott, I think that’s also interesting is that, from the text messages and emails from the hosts, the opinion primetime hosts, she doesn’t have their respect. Nonetheless, she knows very well, who the audience of Fox News is and why they watch it. And so to go back to what you were saying, Justin, she has a mantra that she really says in these emails and texts. I found like five or six instances of her using “respect the audience,” “know who our audience is,” “know what their expectations are.”

What does she mean by that, Justin?

BARAGONA: Well, I mean, one that the Dominion lawyers are really grasping onto in their case, which is just a few days after the election while they were still dealing with the fallout of their own Arizona election call that set off the bombshell in right wing media, in Trump world. She goes, we can’t give, we can’t give the crazies an inch.

And what she’s meaning by that, is that, it’s not that she’s saying that we have to lean in harder on the truth or anything of that nature. What she’s saying is that we can’t let these sort of smaller competitors that are now grabbing our viewers, namely Newsmax, we can’t give them an inch. We have to, basically, compete with them on their level to grab these viewers back because these viewers are now upset with us because we said that Joe Biden won the state of Arizona, which means that he’s going to win the presidency, which is something that they thought was inconceivable.

And now they’re being told by Team Trump and by completely sympathetic media on his side that this was stolen from us. So we have to kind of maybe at least give those ideas some credence– there’s some stuff out there maybe we allow that to go on our air.

Now, they’re going to object to that and say, well, no, we were, we were just reporting the news and if a president, is saying that the election’s stolen, that is news and we need to put that out there. But you know, we see a pattern that happened right after that where a lot of these opinion hosts were then just putting this out there while behind the scenes are saying, well, this is all a bunch of crap.


FALZONE: And to go back to ratings, they were, Fox was very afraid of the underdog. They’re very they didn’t have competition before Newsmax or OAN or any of these right wing conservative outlets– and Newsmax was beating them in ratings. They were having their audience jump ship and go to Newsmax.

And Justin and I reported on that back at the time, and there was extreme concern within the building of Fox News that they were going to lose their audience to this little startup that could, and that wasn’t going to happen. But what was interesting to see was some prominent names in the Dominion filing being so threatened by the underdog and really trying to throw out the ethos of journalism in order to really bow down to that audience.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And the other thing also, as my audience knows, I have a background working in conservative media myself, and one of the things that I was struck by in reading these texts and emails is that when you work in conservative media, you have to have a certain level of basic competency in order to produce a product that is coherent and people would actually watch.

So you have a basic level of competence and understanding and literacy. But what you soon discover in working in it is that a huge part of your audience doesn’t actually understand politics and has trouble grasping complex concepts. And to me, like that was something that I saw, especially from Scott, is that, Scott is the native, she knows the audience. She built this audience. She was there as they came in from zero.

FALZONE: Well, I would have to, I would have to disagree that she knows that she understands television.

SHEFFIELD: Oh no. She knows the audience I’m saying.

FALZONE: No. She knows. She might know the audience. But Suzanne Scott is known for, based on my profile and based on the sources I interviewed, she is known for following whatever the Murdochs tell her to do. She’s in a leadership position, but Jay Wallace, who’s co-president really understands the formulas that work.

He really understands the audience, he understands the mechanism of television. , Suzanne Scott ascended for reasons that were not about her prowess of media.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. That’s a important point. And you can maybe kind of see it though because like in the documents, Wallace he’s making, he doesn’t make this point as often as that, we have to tell the audience what they want to hear.

Because when you look at the ratings, Fox was losing to Newsmax in certain time slots, in specific days. So this was a real threat for them. And I wrote a piece for the Young Turks in which I talked about how that there’s a certain amount of irony in that Fox’s shows are often deriding people who are on the left side of the aisle as snowflakes, quote unquote, who just can’t handle anything and need a safe space. But I mean, over and over it seems like the Fox audience wants a safe space from the rest of the world. Did you get that sense at all, Justin?

BARAGONA: I mean, yes. And they know that, I mean, that’s the reason why that they were reprimanding reporters who would do a fact check of Rudy Giuliani’s crazy ass press conference, right? Kristin Fisher then went on right after and said, well, that’s not true, or that’s unproven, or that’s baseless.

And then immediately after that, her boss, who was told from above him, we need to do something about that. And then you need to let her know too, we go back to that phrase that she needs to know how to respect the audience, and then she was not given much airtime right after that.

She used to be used as like a, fill-in host, was one of their top White House correspondents. She was shuffled off to the side after that because of that. And then as we know, a few months later, she took a job with less prominence with CNN, CNN rather than stay as a White House correspondent with Fox.

SHEFFIELD: Which is pretty unheard of in television.


SHEFFIELD: Like, people don’t do that. So Diana, despite all these constant concessions and flattering of the audience that was happening at Fox, the opinion hosts in these messages that we’ve seen, they seem to hate their colleagues. I mean, did you see any messages or did you get that sense when you were reading through these?

FALZONE: We see with Tucker Carlson, there is an exchange that actually brings up one of our articles about Suzanne Scott from The Daily Beast, and he seems to be celebrating it with one of his producers.

So there is a lot of pushback. I mean we did reference earlier on in our conversation that here you have a DC based reporter who is simply doing her job and Tucker Carlson is calling for her to be fired to the executives. I mean that in itself, as one of our Fox insiders said in our recent article, the king of entitlement, there’s so much smugness.

There’s this idea that you are going to have journalists get punished for reporting the facts. That there would be a host that would have that kind of power. To even demand that of news network executives is just mind blowing.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And well, and the other thing also, there was at least one text from Carlson and his colleague Laura Ingraham, in which they said that they believed that Fox hates them. And they believe that one of the communications people who worked there, Irena Briganti, that she hated them and was ’embarrassed of us,’ I think as one of them put it. Go ahead Justin.

BARAGONA: I was just going to say, just as an aside, they were actually also referencing reporting we were doing and acting like Irena was coming to us and kind of dumping stuff to us to embarrass them.

Which I thought was funny because, no, that’s just– The Daily Beast. Let me just say that.

SHEFFIELD: So, Yeah. Well, okay. And so, I guess one of the other kind of interesting figures in these messages that we’ve seen. Is Mike Lindell the MyPillow guy. You would think that a guy who advertises a lot on the network would not be someone who would be being discussed by the editorial team in an editorial context.

And yet he was. Either one of you can take that. What were they saying about Lindell and what was his role there?

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