Ousted Fox News Politics Editor on Dominion Lawsuit Revelations: ‘It Feels Really Good To Be Vindicated’
March 2, 2023 | Tags: MSNBC, Politics, REASON
When former Fox News politics editor Chris Stirewalt was making the promotional rounds last August for his book Broken News: Why the Media Rage Machine Divides America and How to Fight Back, the Fox public relations department was not shy about batting down the number-cruncher's claims of being fired for his early election-night call of Joe Biden winning Arizona and therefore likely the presidency.
"Chris Stirewalt's quest for relevance knows no bounds," an unnamed Fox News spokesperson sneered back then to The New York Times.
The cable news leader likely has a little less swagger after the past two weeks of fallout from a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, which for weeks after the election was accused by network personalities and guests of engineering a fantastical conspiracy to depose Donald Trump from the White House. Pre-trial filings based on internal messages and depositions reveal anchors and executives seeking to mollify their audience's angry Trump supporters by scapegoating employees—including Stirewalt's boss, Washington bureau chief Bill Sammon—for indelicately delivering news the president didn't want to hear.
"Maybe best to let Bill go right away," News Corp Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch told Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott in a November 20, 2020, communication detailed in a Dominion filing this week. Such a move would "be a big message with Trump people," Murdoch added. Sammon was informed he was on the outs that very day, according to Dominion; his retirement and Stirewalt's layoff were announced two months later.
"I will say this—and I [won't] speak for Bill Sammon…and for the other guys and gals on the Decision Desk: It feels really good to be vindicated in this way," Stirewalt told me and Michael Moynihan Tuesday night, for an episode of the Fifth Column podcast. "We knew that we were isolated inside the company at that time, but we did not know how isolated we were, and we didn't know the pressure that was being applied internally against us….I think what those filings reveal, and what I read about at Fox, are people making short-term decisions to try to maintain artificial sugar-high levels of viewership from an election season after the election was over, and not being willing to suffer the consequences of being a news organization."
That the internal post-election pressure included the famously Trump-averse Murdoch—who, on the day before he suggested sacrificing Sammon, denounced the conspiracy-mongering of lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell as "really crazy stuff"—illustrates the self-constructed, still-lucrative predicament that Fox News, the Republican Party, and American conservatism all find themselves in at the beginning of the 2024 presidential cycle. Still enjoying the rarified views at the top of the totem pole, but clinging on for dear life, terrified of alienating the people down below who made them rich.
"You can't give the crazies an inch right now," Scott warned in an email after two on-air employees expressed publicly the same kind of skepticism toward the Giuliani/Powell theory that Murdoch had communicated privately. "They are looking for and blowing up all appearances of disrespect to the audience."
What kind of business depends on consciously (if condescendingly) catering to "crazies"? For the longest time, that would be "Conservatism Inc.," the disparaging moniker given by some grassroots conservatives to describe (in the uncharitable words of Conservapedia) the "loose coalition of self-interested RINOs/neoconservatives, token conservatives, Establishment Republicans, consultants, organizations, PACs, etc., who try to claim leadership of the conservative movement while enriching or otherwise benefiting themselves." The kind of people who "market themselves as authentically conservative to the public (usually during election years), yet hold widely liberal positions, and hinder true conservatism."
On the politician level, the caricatured avatar of Conservatism Inc. travels to "crazy base land" during contested primaries, shifts to the center for general elections, then pivots to the Beltway status quo once in office. The enabling consultancy-class wing is there to get the base riled up with red meat, while assuring friends on the Acela that they don't really care about that culture war stuff.
Fox News, like its poorer cousins on social media and the AM dial, has to constantly maintain credibility both with the populist grassroots and the elitists they elect—a delicate dance between opinion and journalism at the best of institutional times, a combustible combination ever since the twinned rise of Trump and fall of Fox visionary Roger Ailes.
"It is too bad for America that Roger Ailes was such a broken person," Stirewalt said, referring to the wave of sexual assault allegations that flushed the Fox News founder out of the building back in July 2016. "Because I can promise you this, that at no point in the Roger Ailes reign would the three primetime anchors have been texting with each other, because he would have made sure they hated each other, because he was a big scorpions-in-a-bottle kind of management guy."
Those lawsuit-surfaced texts between Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham in the wake of the 2020 election are indeed something to behold.
"Please get her fired. Seriously….What the fuck?" Carlson texted Hannity on November 12, after reporter Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked a Trump election tweet (one that mentioned Hannity and conspiracy-spreading Fox Business Network host Lou Dobbs) by quoting contrary statements from a federal government cyber defense agency. "It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It's measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke."
Hannity declared Heinrich's tweet a third strike (the first two were Chris Wallace's "shit" presidential debate moderation on September 29, 2020, and then the "disaster" on election night), saying: "Now this BS? Nope. Not gonna fly. Did I mention Cavuto?" (Longtime host Neil Cavuto, widely respected in and outside of the Fox building, had cut away from a November 9 White House press conference in which then–Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany was making wild allegations of election fraud.)
To Fox's credit, Heinrich was not fired, even though Scott did complain in a private communication that "She has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted." (In a statement, Fox News charged that "Dominion 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." It continued: "There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners, but the core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v. Sullivan.")
I agree that Dominion will have a hard time clearing the high American bar for defamation, and unlike Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, I do not wish to see a weakening of the "actual malice" standard. But as someone who consumes and critiques media, and who worked happily in the Fox building from 2013 to 2015, I think the questions raised by this lawsuit are more interesting than the eventual verdict.
In an increasingly polarized country, with an increasingly polarized media, what is the fate of fact-tethered journalism and intellectual rigor at the institutions most prized by large partisan factions? This goes not just for Fox's mirror image across the street at MSNBC, but also what we used to call the "mainstream media" at places like The New York Times and NPR, where there is a concerted effort to supplant "bothsidesism" with the kind of "moral clarity" that can zip quicker, and with more pejorative adjectives, toward a political conclusion.
In his book (which I interviewed him about for C-SPAN), Stirewalt offers a different solution than those advocated by the likes of former New York Times/Washington Post media critic Margaret Sullivan, arguing that we need to focus on the demand-side pressures by the audience—including and especially ourselves—for tribal comfort food that tells us our side is noble and the other wicked.
"If I have a bad media diet, it does hurt you," Stirewalt told The Fifth Column. "I would be making myself less equipped to be a partner to you and other people in trying to sustain self-government for this country….My plea is for people to think more about how to remedy what is wrong with where they are, and less about where the other people are. If you do not like what is on Fox News, do not watch Fox News. If you do not like what is on MSNBC, do not watch MSNBC. Do whatever you want to do, consume whatever you want. But the amount of time that people spend obsessing over what strangers are talking about and doing is not healthy, and it keeps them from addressing normal basic things on their own side."
It is not new for those atop the conservative food chain to be frightened by the rabble down below. "Republican elites are terrified of their own customers," I wrote in 2016. The GOP "has a huge and unsated anti-Establishment passion," I argued in 2015, "one that's only stoked by the primacy of elite characters like Jeb Bush (and Mitt Romney before him)." Even in 2005, looking at the legacy of the 1994 Newt Gingrich–led "revolution," it was clear from the documentary evidence that Republicans had "located and attracted a new base of voters with bomb-throwing rhetoric," and that "the key to maintaining that base, besides the usual vote-buying that every governing party engages in, has been to keep the bombs coming, not to follow up on any of the limited-government promises."
Trump's political genius was to convince grassroots conservatives that only he understood, and would do something about, the perennially hollow promises of Conservative Inc.—including at their heretofore beloved institution Fox News. The unanswered question for American conservatism continues to be where that sizable bloc of people will now go, and who they will blame, after Trump's promises, too, fail to deliver.
It's clear that Murdoch is desperate to keep that audience, and it's equally clear that he resents their most beloved politician. Who, true to form, reacted to the Dominion filings by ranting against Fox and its owner on Truth Social:
If Rupert Murdoch honestly believes that the Presidential Election of 2020, despite MASSIVE amounts of proof to the contrary, was not Rigged & Stollen [sic], then he & his group of MAGA Hating Globalist RINOS should get out of the News Business as soon as possible, because they are aiding & abetting the DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA with FAKE NEWS. Certain BRAVE & PATRIOTIC FoxNews Hosts, who he scorns and ridicules, got it right. He got it wrong. THEY SHOULD BE ADMIRED & PRAISED, NOT REBUKED & FORSAKEN!!!
The pressures on Murdoch, internal and external, must be intense, and I can't imagine the cafeteria being a very jovial place these days. But every previous prediction of Fox's imminent demise has fallen laughably short. I will continue taking the under.
But as we round into the next presidential primary season, basic media literacy suggests a post-Dominion recalibration of how dominant and audience-sensitive the network's opinion-side operation will be. Stirewalt, understandably, is not optimistic.
"It was at least in the interests of Fox's previous business model to have some solidity [in the news division]," he said. "[But] over time, what I watched happen was that the serving of vegetables in the food pyramid got screwed up—the space on the plate for the vegetables got smaller and smaller and smaller. And then finally somebody asked the obvious question, 'Why do we bother having these vegetables at all? People don't like them, so why don't we just give the people what they want?'"
Correction: The previous version of this article quoted Stirewalt as saying he will, rather than won't, speak for his former colleagues on the Decision Desk.
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