There were two tracks the misinformation took: one was the claim that there had been fraud in mail-in voting, which rests on a foundation of skepticism that Trump had spent months creating. Various allegations and video snippets were presented to show that there had been fraudulent mail voting; none ever proved substantive.
The other track was wilder. Driven by attorney Sidney Powell, it held that a legion of communists and foreigners had manipulated electronic voting systems to skew the results of the vote. It was multiple layers of ridiculousness stacked up like a toxic layer cake, with any random claim slathered on whenever Powell came across it. In short, it suggested that a company called Dominion Voting Systems was partnering with a company called Smartmatic to flip votes away from Trump. It’s nonsense, disproved by various audits and driven by a near-complete misunderstanding of the companies’ corporate relationship, how voting works and Internet connection technologies.
In short order, both Dominion and Smartmatic threatened to sue those promoting the false claims, seeking billions of dollars for the damage each company claims it incurred. Powell was sued, among others, as was the parent company of Fox Business and Fox News, where the conspiracies found a welcoming home.
In response, Fox filed a brief defending its coverage on the grounds that it is protected by the First Amendment. By hosting Powell, Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani and other figures, the company argues, Fox was simply providing coverage of a story of national news interest.
As defenses go, it’s a robust one. But then the brief goes a bit further, seeking to demonstrate how “evenhanded” its coverage of the issue was by delineating a number of occasions on which Fox News or Fox Business aired comments expressing skepticism about the conspiracy theory.
For example, the brief quotes host Maria Bartiromo questioning Powell on Nov. 15 by asking her how she will prove her claims about Smartmatic.
“Sidney,” Bartiromo said, “you say you have an affidavit from someone who knows how this system works and was there with the planning of it. You believe you can prove this in court?”
This is presented as being evenhanded coverage of Powell. What isn’t mentioned, though, is that Powell was given airtime to make her claims without Bartiromo seeking to validate them in any way before Powell sat down in front of the camera. (The affidavit, mind you, was nonsense.) Also unmentioned is that during a different segment of the show that day, Bartiromo interviewed Giuliani, who proceeded to make similar claims about Smartmatic to the host’s credulous approval.
Over and over, the examples of “evenhandedness” presented by Fox News were instead examples of hosts sprinkling “and you can prove this” queries after extended misleading riffs about the two companies.
On Nov. 16, for example, Fox Business host Lou Dobbs claimed that Dominion was linked to Smartmatic, which it wasn’t, later adding that Smartmatic had denied any link and that it was only used in Los Angeles County — a qualifier that the Fox brief highlights. What it doesn’t mention is that Dobbs then used that correction as a pivot to amplify his insinuations that Smartmatic had somehow done something sketchy.
“A Politico article from march, in fact,” Dobbs said on that show, “documents that numerous security flaws were discovered in Smartmatic software by California’s secretary of state and outside computer experts.”
The Fox brief does cite Tucker Carlson’s influential on-air announcement that, pressed for evidence of her claims, Powell didn’t provide any — a discrediting that helped make Powell persona non grata (at least officially) on Trump’s legal team. The brief also includes questions Bartiromo asked Powell the following day, reiterating Carlson’s criticisms.
But, of course, the Powell appearance on Bartiromo’s show was explicitly an opportunity for the lawyer to reiterate the claims for which she couldn’t provide evidence.
Bartiromo went out of her way to tee Powell up, at one point asking the lawyer to identify “the most egregious and most stunning” piece of evidence she had gathered. Powell again pointed to the same affidavit from the “military officer.”
“He knows exactly how it works,” Powell said, without interruption. “He was briefed on it. And many other people are talking every day about how it worked. We’ve got all kinds of evidence that is mathematically irrefutable by experts, including three professors at Princeton. And it all proves the same thing.”
Again, no proof of anything close to what Powell repeatedly alleged ever emerged.
Closed-captioning data from the Internet Archive analyzed by GDELT shows that Dobbs’s and Bartiromo’s shows were the ones most likely to mention Dominion and Smartmatic. How much coverage did the Fox networks give the conspiracy theories in the interest of providing coverage of a national news story?
In mid-December, Smartmatic first threatened to sue Fox. In short order, the network turned off the tap on the story, generating an awkward segment in which an elections expert walked through the claims that the network had aired and debunked or discredited them.
A similar segment aired on Fox News a few days later, causing a detectable spike in the number of mentions of Smartmatic on the company’s flagship network.
Incredibly, the Fox brief responding to the Smartmatic lawsuit cites these segments as proof of the networks’ evenhandedness. It’s like a guy who learns that the FBI is investigating his business preemptively releasing a statement in which he praises companies that pay all of their taxes — and then tries to use that statement as evidence of his innocence when arrested for tax fraud.
Again, Fox probably has a strong legal case: The First Amendment offers wide latitude to news organizations, with good reason. As a public relations exercise, though, the effort to cast its behavior after the election as responsible or nuanced is at best implausible. The evidence that Fox itself presents makes clear that several on-air hosts spent the month after Trump lost the election bolstering, not undercutting, his team’s obviously false assertions about what happened.