As news networks projected Joseph R. Biden Jr. as the next president in November 2020, Fox News hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham were unsure what to say on air. Ms. Ingraham texted her colleagues, asking what they would do the following night. Mr. Carlson responded that he planned to feature Dominion Voting Systems, a little-known voting technology company that had become a target of Trump supporters who suspected the election had been rigged.
Mr. Carlson admitted feeling uneasy about the conspiracy theories surrounding Dominion’s purported role in a fictitious plot to siphon away votes from President Donald J. Trump. He wrote that the whole thing seemed insane to him, and Sidney Powell, a legal adviser to the Trump campaign, was making everyone paranoid and crazy, including him. Text messages like these, released as part of Dominion’s $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News, offer some of the clearest evidence yet about the misgivings that many inside the network expressed to one another, despite telling their millions of viewers a 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 the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021. Mr. Carlson, in particular, has evolved from a skeptic to an election denier, as seen in the newly disclosed messages. This week, he broadcast selectively edited footage, given to him by Speaker Kevin McCarthy, that tried to recast the attack as little more than an “orderly and meek” procession of curious sightseers who were rightfully upset with how the election had been conducted.
Despite ridiculing claims about a plot to steal the election as “shockingly reckless” and “absurd” in his November 2020 text messages, Mr. Carlson continued to give credence to lies about widespread voter fraud this week. He said on his Monday program that the protesters were angry and believed that the election they had just voted in had been unfairly conducted, and they were right.
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Rupert Murdoch: The conservative media mogul acknowledged in a deposition in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit that several Fox News hosts promoted the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen.
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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.”
“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, the Republican nominee for president in 2012, called Mr. Carlson’s broadcast “dangerous and disgusting.”
A Fox News spokeswoman said on Tuesday that Dominion had used “distortions and misinformation” in its recent filings by misattributing quotes and leaving out context 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.
Some of Mr. Carlson’s private remarks about Mr. Trump are difficult to square with the praise he has lavished on the former president publicly. At times, the host and his producers were gleeful about what a news cycle without Mr. Trump would look like. And they cheerfully predicted his waning power as a political force.
“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” Mr. Carlson wrote to members of his staff on Jan. 4, 2021. “I truly can’t wait.”
One producer replied, “I want nothing more.”
Then Mr. Carlson responded, “I hate him passionately.”
The new documents show how Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox Corp, was also harshly critical of Mr. Trump — to the point of being disdainful at times. Mr. Murdoch said during his deposition in the Dominion lawsuit that he believed the former president was a sore loser.
And asked whether he had ever believed that there was “massive fraud” in the 2020 election, Mr. Murdoch replied unequivocally.
“No. I have never even studied it,” he said.
At one point, according to the full text of an email made public on Tuesday, Mr. Murdoch asked the chief executive of Fox News Media, Suzanne Scott, whether some hosts had been too willing to accept false accusations of fraud. Mr. Murdoch complained on Jan. 21, 2021, that Fox was “still getting mud thrown at us!” for inflaming the rhetoric that helped spur the Jan. 6 assault.
Then Mr. Murdoch conceded, referring to Mr. Hannity and Ms. Ingraham, “Maybe Sean and Laura went too far.”
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 angered 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.
Dominion’s lawsuit 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. Fox lawyers redacted the documents extensively, 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 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.
They have also argued that Dominion’s business wasn’t meaningfully hurt and that the $1.6 billion damages claim is not justified. A Fox News spokeswoman pointed to an email in the latest cache of documents sent by John Poulos, the chief executive of Dominion on Dec. 4, 2020. Mr. Poulos, responding to another executive’s concerns that Dominion was not speaking out enough publicly against the false claims, said: “No customer cares about the media. It’s just more words from their perspective.”
The revelations from the documents have reverberated among some conservatives who have long mistrusted Fox News, 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 added, “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!)”
The sanitizing of the events of Jan. 6 on shows like Mr. Carlson’s for the last two years seems all the more glaring given his words on Jan. 7, 2021. The new documents contain a text message chain that the host had with his producers that morning.
When Mr. Carlson again predicts that Mr. Trump’s clout will fade as he “becomes incalculably less powerful” out of office, one of his producers frets that the last weeks of Mr. Trump’s presidency could bring even more chaos and danger.
“The Trump anger spiral is vicious,” the producer tells his boss.
“That’s for sure,” Mr. Carlson responds.
“Deadly,” the host adds. “We’ve got two weeks left. We can do this.”