As a reporter and an anchor for Fox News watched Donald Trump supporters gather at a rally in Washington, D.C., after his election defeat in November 2020, they both had some questions.

Many in the crowd, said correspondent Rich Edson, “are picking up on the president’s unfounded claim that there was widespread electoral interference and that the election was stolen – no proof of that.”

Voting Machines Defamation Suit

Rupert Murdoch Mary Altaffer/Associated Press, file

“What do these folks want?” wondered weekend anchor Leland Vittert. “Is it that they really believe that there’s a chance President Trump gets a second term, or are they more just trying to complain that things aren’t fair?”

When Lachlan Murdoch, the head of Fox News’s parent company, learned of this on-air exchange, he was displeased.

“News guys have to be careful how they cover this rally,” Murdoch wrote in a message to Fox News’s CEO, according to a recently revealed trove of internal documents. “The narrative should be this is a huge celebration of the president.” He also complained that Vittert took a “smug and obnoxious” tone in his coverage, capped by a combative interview with a Trump campaign spokesperson.

Vittert got a warning from his supervisor, who “told him to cut it out,” according to company communications. Within five months, he was no longer employed at Fox News.


Murdoch’s reaction is just one of several examples revealed in recent court filings of the fierce internal backlash aimed at Fox News journalists who rebutted election fraud claims that were popular with the network’s largely pro-Trump audience.

Emails and text messages uncovered in Dominion Voting System’s $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against the network show Fox journalists being declared a “brand threat” or getting chastised by executives for not “respecting our audience” when they reported information that called into question the conspiracy theories of a stolen election floated by Trump and his allies.

For many outside observers, the revelation of these internal clashes undermines Fox’s claim that it provides independent and unbiased reporting to go along with conservative-leaning commentary.

“The blurring between news and opinion has become so endemic to their product that I don’t know where one begins and one ends,” said Bill Grueskin, a Columbia University journalism professor who once served as a high-ranking editor for the Murdoch family-controlled Wall Street Journal.

Voting Machines Defamation Suit

A headline about former President Donald Trump is displayed outside Fox News studios in New York in 2018. AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File

Fox News officials have responded to media coverage of Dominion’s filings by saying that its legal opponent “has mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context, and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law.” The network did not provide additional comment for this story.

Vittert, now an anchor for cable-news station NewsNation, declined to comment.


Five days after Vittert’s bosses upbraided him, Fox News aired a news conference where Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell made unfounded claims about Dominion helping to rig the election against Trump. This time, it was White House correspondent Kristin Fisher’s time to push back.

“That was certainly a colorful news conference from Rudy Giuliani, but it was light on facts,” she told viewers. “So much of what he said was simply not true, or has already been thrown out in court. … The Trump campaign has yet to provide, at least in court, hard evidence of voter fraud and irregularities widespread enough to overturn the outcome of the election.”

According to a Dominion court brief, Fisher got an immediate follow-up call from her boss, Bryan Boughton, who “emphasized that higher-ups at Fox News were also unhappy with it,” and told her to do a better job of “respecting our audience.” Dominion also unearthed a text message in which Fisher talked about being “punished for doing my job.”

In May 2021, about a week after Vittert’s departure, Fisher announced on air that she was leaving Fox. Now at CNN, she did not respond to requests for comment.

Similar comments from Fox News host Dana Perino – who after Fisher’s rebuttal of Giuliani said on-air that she “wouldn’t be surprised” if Dominion decided to sue – appeared to exasperate Suzanne Scott, Fox News’s chief executive officer. Scott fretted in an internal message that Fox-watching Trump supporters “are looking for and blowing up all appearances of disrespect to the audience.”

Perhaps the fiercest internal backlash against a Fox journalist came from the network’s two most powerful opinion hosts – Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. On Nov. 12, 2020, correspondent Jacqui Heinrich retweeted Trump’s praise for segments by Hannity and Fox Business host Lou Dobbs that cast doubt on Dominion machines, pointedly adding, “that’s not what top election infrastructure officials said on the record tonight,” and quoting a government agency’s statement that the election “was the most secure in American history.”


In a text thread between the network’s prime-time opinion hosts, outrage flowed. “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company,” Carlson wrote, asking Hannity to “please get her fired.” Hannity replied that he already “dropped a bomb” to express his unhappiness to Scott. “Now this BS?” Hannity added. “Nope. Not gonna fly.”

Heinrich has remained with the network, though, promoted to the role of White House correspondent in the summer of 2021.

Also in November 2020, Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto cut away from a White House briefing after press secretary Kayleigh McEnany leveled baseless allegations of election fraud. “Unless she has more details to back that up, I can’t in good countenance continue to show you this,” he told viewers. His actions raised red flags at company headquarters, where Raj Shah, an executive with parent company Fox Corp, notified senior company leadership that Cavuto’s conduct presented a “brand threat.”

Dominion’s latest brief revealed at least one instance before 2020 in which Rupert Murdoch, the co-founder of Fox News, had taken issue with the work of one of the network’s journalists. After anchor Shepard Smith accused Trump on air of spreading “lies,” Murdoch emailed Scott and network president Jay Wallace. “Over the top!” he wrote, referring to Smith, adding that someone “[needs] to chat to him” about the remarks. (Smith abruptly left Fox News in 2019.)

“I’m surprised by how transparent and candid they were about the way they approached these things,” said Grueskin, the Columbia professor, though he acknowledged that Fox executives and hosts certainly did not expect their communications to be made public.

Mark Feldstein, a veteran TV news journalist who is now a journalism professor at the University of Maryland, said he’s never seen an executive dictate the “narrative” of news coverage to the extent Lachlan Murdoch did with the Trump rally. Dominion also unearthed a communication in which he criticized an on-screen graphic as being “too wordy” and too “anti Trump.”

Such comments “show an extraordinary amount of micromanaging by people at the very top, in ways that might occasionally happen in mainstream news outlets but not like this – down to the chyrons,” Feldstein said.

Fox’s news division’s effort to do hard reporting alongside the conservative commentary of its marquee pundits is “a balancing act they’ve been trying to perform for some time,” Feldstein said – with limited success, he believes.

“It wasn’t all that persuasive from looking at the product,” he added, “but we didn’t really know what was going on behind the scenes before.”

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