A new lawsuit sheds fresh light on how Fox News’ propaganda machine works from the inside — at the same time that the network is trying to extract even more from cable news subscribers. Former Fox News producer Jason Donner is suing the network, alleging that he was fired for challenging its coverage of the 2020 election, the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, and vaccines. Donner’s lawsuit, including a new filing this week, is a first-person perspective on how the sausage is made, as truth-tellers are marginalized and ultimately forced out.
In recent years, we’ve seen a mountain of evidence unearthed via the legal system showing that Fox News operates as a propaganda outlet. Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against Fox, which resulted in a record $787 million settlement, revealed how the network was a clearinghouse of misinformation. Media Matters President Angelo Carusone has described the Dominion filings as offering “a keyhole view into the day-to-day industrial-scale deceit that takes place at Fox.”
"It was clear to Donner that the reprimand … came from upper management."
Donner’s suit is another tantalizing glimpse inside the Fox News machine. The filing — and its claims that have not yet been proven in a court of law, for the record — alleges he received backlash internally for publicly disputing Rudy Giuliani’s allegations about voter fraud at the latter’s wild, lie-filled Nov. 19, 2020, press conference. According to Donner, he was reprimanded for contextualizing Giuliani’s misleading statements. As he alleged in the complaint, his then-boss “stated that she would ‘let it go’ but that Donner needed to be careful moving forward. … It was clear to Donner that the reprimand … came from upper management. From this point on, Donner had a target on his back with upper management.” (Neither a Fox News spokesperson nor lawyers for the network responded to NBC News’ requests for comment.)
We knew from Dominion filings that a week before Giuliani’s press conference, Fox hosts had discussed trying to get reporter Jacqui Heinrich fired for similarly disputing the Trump campaign line. We knew that Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch was directly in touch with the newsroom after the election to ensure a pro-Trump tone to his liking. But Donner’s account details the pressure that has led so many Fox veterans to leave the company — and to call it out as a propaganda machine.
In the filing, Donner also describes what it was like being at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and hearing Fox News personalities downplay the attack. Media Matters has documented the shameful and horrifying Fox News coverage that day, but the account in Donner’s filing still feels raw: “When Donner heard Fox News’ false reporting of the insurrection at the Capitol, he called the Fox News’ control room and stated, ‘I’m your Capitol Hill Producer inside the Capitol where tear gas is going off on the second floor in the Ohio clock corridor, rioters are storming the building, reports of shots fired outside the House Chamber. I don’t want to hear any of this f----- s--- on our air ever again because you’re gonna get us all killed.’”
Donner also describes pleading with executives at Fox about Tucker Carlson’s Fox Nation special “Patriot Purge,” which claimed that the rioters at the U.S. Capitol were in fact righteous patriots, that violence on Jan. 6 was a sinister “false flag” operation, and that the media and law enforcement are exploiting it to conduct a “purge aimed at legacy Americans.” Carlson’s special was written by a director of white nationalist documentaries and promoted across Fox programs.
We knew from prior reporting that internal complaints about Carlson’s film had reached the upper echelons of Fox executives, including Lachlan Murdoch. Donner’s filing reveals that Fox News released it despite his work with Fox reporter Jennifer Griffin to debunk the claims within. The film remains available to stream on Fox’s streaming service Fox Nation.
Lives were ruined and the country was thrown into upheaval because of the way Fox chose to try to win back viewers’ attention.
And this is the point: Fox knew all of these were lies and allowed them anyway, pressuring people in the organization to follow along. The two people most responsible for this culture of corruption are Fox Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan Murdoch, who finally succeeded his father as the company’s chairman this week. Both value chasing the audience over chasing the truth. And when a segment of Fox’s audience — including then-President Donald Trump —?decamped for rivals like One America News and Newsmax after the 2020 election, lives were ruined and the country was thrown into upheaval because of the way Fox chose to try to win back their attention.
And why do Fox executives need that audience? That gets to the money, because they use their audience to extract big payouts from the cable companies.
Fox News is funded largely through cable bills — getting monthly fees per subscriber. Despite the explosion of cord-cutting, Lachlan Murdoch is promising huge price increases in the current round of renewals. One of the company’s aggressive tactics is whipping its audience into a frenzy, warning viewers that their cable companies are trying to take Fox away from them and issuing calls to action.
But when cable companies succumb to Fox’s tactics, it’s not just these Fox viewers who pay the price. It’s every cable subscriber who gets their cable bill raised regardless of whether they watch the channel. Donner’s lawsuit shows Fox’s entire business model depends on demanding loyalty from its staff to keep the attention of its audience. The propaganda is the point — regardless of the consequences for the rest of us.