‘The world according to Fox’: A CEO’s vision gets tested in court

Before the committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection held its first prime-time hearing in June, Suzanne Scott, CEO of Fox News Media, called Lachlan Murdoch, her boss, to tell him how her network planned to broadcast the event.

They wouldn’t, she said. The channel would stick with its usual prime-time lineup of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Murdoch, the executive chairman of Fox Corp., was fine with Scott’s decision, according to an executive with knowledge of their conversation.

As a business move, Scott’s call was the right one for Fox News in the end. As many viewers tuned in as would on a regular night. And Fox still managed to best CNN in the ratings.

The decision was true to form, according to interviews with more than a dozen current and former colleagues. Since Scott took over the top job at Fox News in 2018, her colleagues said, she has managed from behind the scenes with a simple mantra: Respect Fox’s audience. Often that involves sparing conservative viewers what they don’t want to hear — even when that means ignoring one of the biggest stories of the year.

That strategy has helped Fox News succeed not just as the most-watched cable news network in the country but also as a multibillion-dollar consumer brand with a suite of businesses that, according to a recent company promo for one product, offers fans “The World According to Fox.” In addition to the Fox News and Fox Business cable channels, Scott has introduced Fox News Books, a publisher of meditations on Christianity; Fox Nation, a $5.99-per-month streaming service that produces a reboot of “Cops” and an original special from Carlson, “The End of Men,” that purports to explore a nationwide decline in testosterone rates; and Fox Weather, a new app and cable channel.

But Scott’s Fox News — a sanctuary for conservatives where few unpleasant facts intrude and political misinformation has spread — also looms large in a case that threatens Fox’s business and possibly Scott herself. She has emerged as one of the central figures in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems, in which the voting company accuses Fox executives of juicing ratings and profits by repeatedly airing false information about Dominion machines siphoning votes away from former President Donald Trump.

According to several people closely involved in the case, lawyers for Dominion are expected to depose her soon. A judge has granted Dominion access to her emails and text messages from the period after the 2020 election when Fox anchors and guests amplified some of the most outrageous falsehoods about Dominion and its supposed role in a plot to steal the election.

So far, those messages contained at least one instance in which Scott expressed skepticism about the dubious claims of voter fraud that her network had been promoting, a recent court proceeding revealed. That kind of evidence is what Dominion hopes will ultimately convince a jury that Fox broadcast information it knew to be false, which would leave the company on the hook for significant damages.

People who have heard Scott speak in meetings say she has been critical of Trump’s election denial claims, though she mostly keeps her personal politics private. (She is registered as unaffiliated.) One colleague recalled that in a meeting shortly after the 2020 election, Scott seemed in disbelief as she described how people she considered otherwise serious and rational thought there was any chance Trump could legitimately stop President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

And according to a message that Scott sent around the same time, which Dominion lawyers recently cited in court, she warned against “giving the crazies an inch,” referring to pro-Trump conspiracy theorists. NPR first reported on that message, but a transcript of the hearing in which it was disclosed has since been sealed by a judge at Fox’s request. Fox has suffered several setbacks in court lately as it has tried to narrow the scope of the case and limit what internal communications it is required to hand over to Dominion.

In a statement, Fox News Media lauded Scott for expanding the company into numerous new businesses. “We are extremely proud of Suzanne rising through the ranks to become one of the most successful CEOs in the media industry and her track record of incredible results speaks for itself.”

Lawyers for Fox have said that its commentary on the 2020 election and Dominion was protected by the First Amendment and inherently newsworthy. “There is nothing more newsworthy than covering the president of the United States and his lawyers making allegations,” Fox News Media said in a statement.

Dominion has disputed that. “If it were up to Fox, the more ‘newsworthy’ the lie, the greater their right to spread it,” a Dominion spokesperson said. “However, the First Amendment does not give broadcasters the right to knowingly spread lies or disregard the truth.”

Scott, 56, enjoys a close relationship with the Murdochs, who value the knowledge of Fox News she has accumulated over nearly 30 years with the network and who trust that she has the right vision to expand the business as cord cutting threatens the cable industry, according to two senior Fox colleagues.

The Murdochs, however, have been forced to make hard choices about even their most favored CEOs when scandal overwhelms. In 2010, Rupert Murdoch, chair of Fox Corp., reluctantly pushed out Rebekah Brooks, who ran his British newspapers and was a close protégé, amid a police investigation into phone hacking by journalists who worked for her.

Scott maintains a much more discreet profile than her predecessor, Roger Ailes, a whisperer to Republican presidents who cultivated a Svengali-like image in the media before numerous accusations of sexual harassment led to his downfall.

She grew up in northern New Jersey, where she lives today with her husband and teenage daughter. Her first job for Fox was as an assistant to one of Ailes’ top deputies. Her first big promotion was to a senior producer position on Greta Van Susteren’s show. She would go on to oversee network talent and then programming.

Colleagues say she pays careful attention to what’s on Fox, often watching from her office with the sound off and occasionally offering advice to producers and hosts on how sets could look better, outfits sharper and guests could be more compelling.

Under her direction, Fox News has maintained not only one of the biggest audiences in cable but also in all of television, occasionally drawing more viewers than traditional broadcast networks such as ABC. And Fox News collects far higher ad rates than its competitors — an average of almost $9,000 for a 30-second commercial in prime time, compared with about $6,200 for CNN and $5,300 for MSNBC, according to the Standard Media Index, an independent research firm.

As CEO, Scott has adopted a mostly deferential view of dealing with talent, current and former hosts said.

Scott’s supporters argue that much of the tone of the criticism that she’s too hands-off is sexist.

Her supporters are also quick to point out that Scott has elevated numerous women into powerful spots, forming a “League of Their Own,” as some inside Fox have taken to calling it. Dana Perino, Harris Faulkner, Sandra Smith and Martha MacCallum all have their own daytime shows. And for the first time, a woman, Shannon Bream, is the host of “Fox News Sunday,” the network’s signature political talk show.

“If she were the CEO of CNN, lets be honest, the cover stories would never end,” said Perino, a former aide to President George W. Bush who co-hosts two hours on Fox News every weekday. “She doesn’t get that kind of recognition, but she doesn’t need it either.”

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