Laura Ingraham on Fox’s News Division: ‘THEY ARENT SMART’ – Rolling Stone
By Brian Stelter
Media reporting, including my own, often relies on anonymous sourcing. The guarantee of confidentiality is sometimes the only way to gain inside information. But not this time — not with Fox News. The groundbreaking Dominion v. Fox lawsuit forced thousands of pages of texts and emails into the public domain. These on the record materials, showing the sordid origins of Donald Trump’s 2020 election lie, compelled me to write a book, Network of Lies, that comes out on Nov. 14. In this adaptation, Fox’s prime-time stars recoil at the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency and bash their colleagues for admitting Trump lost.
Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Laura Ingraham were not friends. The Trump-era trio of Fox News prime-time stars lived in different states, socialized in different circles, and barely tolerated each other at times. They had complicated histories and very competitive staffs; the cable grind certainly encouraged petty rivalries and backbiting.
But the hosts had something very specific in common that no one else understood. They were the faces of Fox, the actual faces, plastered on huge banners outside Fox headquarters on Sixth Avenue, for better and for worse, and in November of 2020, it was for worse, much worse. That’s why they chatted like BFFs at all hours in a rollicking text message chain. They thought this was a safe space to bitch and moan about all their “enemies” and “liberals” within Fox. They never imagined that the public would be allowed inside.
Dominion Voting Systems obtained the prime-time text chain, and countless other messages, through the discovery process in its defamation lawsuit against Fox. The two sides eventually settled, but the text chain lives in infamy, both as an object of fascination among Fox staffers and a source of insight about the network’s dysfunction.
On Sunday, November 8, 2020, one day after Fox and all the other major networks reported that Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump, Ingraham and Hannity mournfully shared links to anti-Fox stories on Breitbart.com, where angry comments from former fans piled up.
“We are screwed,” Ingraham wrote.
Hannity: “News or opinion?”
The hosts detested the “news” side that accurately reported on Trump’s defeat. “We are tainted too — not as much” as news, Ingraham said, “but their turn toward Biden was so pronounced and obvious that it bleeds across network.” Hannity concurred: “The network is being rejected.”
Carlson looked at his phone fifteen minutes later and added to the pity party. “I’ve heard from angry viewers every hour of the day all weekend,” he wrote, “including at dinner tonight.”
“Same same same,” Hannity said. “Never before has this ever happened.”
Ingraham said she’d been on the receiving end too — “including at Mass!!” Was she cold-shouldered during the sign of peace?
Carlson was furious at Fox’s mis-management team. He asked VP of morning programming Gavin Hadden, in a separate thread, “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real.”
“I hope so,” Hadden replied. “I’m worried.”
Fox was being confronted with a new paradigm: They don’t trust us anymore because this time we DIDN’T lie.
The conversation continued:
Carlson: “Some of this will pass but once you lose people’s trust it’s tough.”
Hadden: “We certainly have gone against ‘the customer is always right.’ But hopefully our product is strong enough to withstand.”
Carlson: “I sure hope so. I sincerely believe it’s important to have a strong Fox News.”
Hadden: “There is no question.”
Hadden: “And Newsmax with all our castoffs is not the answer.”
Carlson: “With Trump behind it, an alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.”
On Monday the 9th, the start of a new workweek, fear of Newsmax was like a burning rash spreading over Fox’s thin skin. Carlson started his show — the first since Biden was projected to be president-elect — by spinning a crowd-pleasing fairy tale about “massive” sources of “election interference” that had tipped the scales against Trump.
Carlson didn’t repeat his “rigged” rhetoric on Tuesday. He pivoted to anti-Biden, anti-Dem storylines. But this attempt to move on, to accept the laws of political physics, riled up his viewers. It led to this remarkably candid text exchange with producer Alex Pfeiffer during the show on Tuesday night:
Pfeiffer: “You told me to tell you if we are getting attacked on Twitter so I will. Many viewers were upset tonight that we didn’t cover election fraud.”
Carlson: “Yeah. Probably should have.”
Pfeiffer: “Yeah I didn’t get why we didnt. Assumed it was some sort of decision not to. But it’s all our viewers care about now.”
Carlson: “I just hate that shit.”
Pfeiffer: “Yeah its honestly awful.”
Monday’s conspiratorial commentary clearly wasn’t enough. Carlson hated the fraud “shit” and sometimes claimed he hated Trump but felt he had to go there again. So Carlson and Pfeiffer conjured up a new way to signal to viewers we’re with you.
“Do we have enough dead people for tonight?” That’s what Carlson asked Pfeiffer at lunchtime the next day.
It was Wednesday the 11th, and the Trump campaign was supposed to be sending over some names of “dead people” who voted in the election. The implication was that live people exploited outdated voter rolls. It was perfect for Carlson, who told Pfeiffer that Trump’s lies were “disgusting” — “I’m trying to look away” — but needed for competitive reasons to be lie-curious, open to the possibility. The problem at lunchtime was that the campaign wasn’t coughing up the names as quickly as Carlson wanted. The host said he would call the campaign directly if need be: “Obviously they need to do whatever they can to help us.” Obviously — because more and more it was a joint effort.
By 8 p.m., Carlson was satisfied, and he started his show by saying that the Trump voters who “believe this election was fundamentally unfair” were right. Democrats stoked fraud by encouraging mail-in ballots, he claimed. Then he started naming some dead people who voted by mail.
You can probably guess what happened next. It turned out that several of the allegedly deceased voters were still very much alive. Actual reporters went to their actual homes, knocked on some actual doors, and found out the truth. Trump’s campaign and Carlson’s team had totally bungled the story. Fox buried a correction but it didn’t matter: For Carlson, “dead people voted” was a success. Fox viewers heard what they wanted to hear: We didn’t lose. The other guys cheated. It was conservative virtue signaling.
Carlson also adjusted his guest bookings to show “respect” to the frenzied audience. Dana Perino, the George W. Bush press secretary turned Fox anchor, was one of those reality-based Republicans who mostly kept her credibility intact during the Trump years, but was often derided as a RINO (Republican in Name Only) by the base. Post-Arizona, Perino’s regular appearances on Carlson’s show were put on hold. “It’s only temporary,” Carlson assured her. But Perino was irritated about being dumped. She told a friend, “This day of reckoning was going to come at some point — where the embrace of Trump became an albatross we can’t shake right away if ever.”
THE EMERGENCE OF TRUMP’S big lie showcased the tensions between the prime-time trio. While Carlson struggled with Trump’s “stolen” lie, Hannity said whatever he had to say, which was one of the reasons why Carlson disparaged his colleague in private. On the air, Hannity pretended the outcome of the election was still in doubt, and he talked at length about Dominion, dropping innuendo about “security concerns” and “fraudulent software.” Trump was watching and cheering. He began his Thursday by rage-tweeting against Fox, but after Hannity’s show that night, he wrote, “Must see @seanhannity takedown of the horrible, inaccurate and anything but secure Dominion Voting System which is used in States where tens of thousands of votes were stolen from us and given to Biden. Likewise, the Great @LouDobbs has a confirming and powerful piece!”
A Fox News PR aide forwarded Trump’s tweet around, saying, “Again, telling his followers to watch FNC.”
A Fox correspondent named Jacqui Heinrich reacted very differently. She tweeted that “top election infrastructure officials”— including some in Trump’s government— had issued a statement that same day saying “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”
Out of nowhere: an accurate report! But in the prime-time text chain, Carlson flagged the tweet for Hannity at 11:09 and said, “Please get her fired. Seriously.” Why? Because a Fox employee fact-checking Trump was bad for business. “I’ve fought this fight for years,” Hannity replied, a fight to keep facts at bay. “They never listened.”
“It needs to stop immediately, like tonight,” Carlson wrote. “It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.” (For the record, the stock did droop about 2.6 percent on Thursday, but it bounced right back.)
Hannity said he had already sent the tweet to Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott. Carlson kept riling him up: “Why would we allow some 27-year-old fake reporter to wreck our network?” Hannity said he was making a drink and going to bed, but not before he sent Heinrich’s tweet to his top producers, along with a question (more accurately, an ugly threat): “Do they not realize I like to fight and the damage I can do here?”
Executive producer Robert Samuel responded that it’s “amazing” how many Fox staffers seem to “hate” the audience. “You don’t have to love Trump,” he wrote, “but you have to respect the audience.” Tiffany Fazio weighed in with a “WTF” and said “they better get the ‘news division’ under control.” So many Fox “News” officials delighted in disparaging their “news” division.
By now it was well after midnight. Porter Berry replied-all: “She’s a huge lib and I’ve been raising this issue for weeks. It’s insane. She’s like a Jim Acosta type character. Bad news bears. She needs to be pulled off political coverage.”
In the prime-time text chain, the divide was absolute. The popular kids had had enough of the Mensa crowd. The news division “breaks no news ever,” Hannity quipped. “They hate hate hate all 3 of us.”
Hannity: “They are embarrassed by us.”
Ingraham: “I don’t want to be liked by them.”
Carlson: “They’re pathetic. [That is] why they’re so angry.”
Ingraham: “THEY ARENT SMART.”
Ingraham: “They like the sound of being a television journalist, and the trappings.”
Hannity said “they,” seemingly referring to Heinrich and her fact-cabal on the news side, “destroyed a brand that took 25 years to build.” Carlson called it “vandalism.” Hannity joked about a “prime time walk out” — or maybe it wasn’t a joke. Ingraham jumped on the idea on Friday the 13th and said the reason for a walk-out could be “fraud in the inducement” — a form of contract fraud. “When we signed,” she said, “they sold the network as a conservative alternative. It is now the opposite and is actually hurting ALL of our established individual brands.”
Ironically, management’s plan for solving its “brand crisis,” as Trump flack turned Fox Corp hack Raj Shah described it, was to lean hard on the Terrible Trio: Ingraham, Hannity, and Carlson. Scott’s #2 Jay Wallace previewed it in a text to Bret Baier earlier in the week: We “need to do some promoting of prime,” Wallace said. “All American cookout of hot dogs and hamburgers to get us through.” On Friday the 13th Fox rolled out a new marketing campaign, titled “Standing Up for What’s Right,” to highlight the prime-time players. “FOX NEWS,” the announcer boomed, “THE VOICES AMERICA TRUSTS.”
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Those voices were only briefly aligned. The all-hours texting slowed down once the post-election crisis faded. The ticked-off audience slowly but surely came home to Fox, for the hot dogs and hamburgers, of course. By 2023, when Carlson was fired and the ratings dropped again, the night-by-night turmoil was more manageable for the surviving hosts. Hannity privately celebrated Carlson’s canning for at least two reasons, I was told: Their differences of opinion were getting increasingly stark, and Carlson’s shadow blotted out Hannity’s own star. Once the ratings recover, Hannity reassured his staffers, “this will be great for us.”
Copyright © 2023 by Brian Stelter. From the forthcoming book NETWORK OF LIES by Brian Stelter to be published by One Signal Publishers/Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Printed by permission.
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