The loneliness of Fox News' Bret Baier
Fox News chief political anchor Bret Baier is perhaps the best personification of Fox Corp chief Lachlan Murdoch's description of Fox News as a network that targets the "center-right." While his selection of stories and analysts often appeal to conservative sensibilities, Baier presents the news from a journalistic standpoint, covers major developments of the day, and corrects misstatements of facts.
Last November, Baier became the latest Fox star to sit for questioning, under oath, by lawyers for an election tech company suing the network for defamation. An attorney for Dominion Voting Systems asked him, by Zoom, how he approached his job.
"I look at my job as being sort of like an ice hockey goalie trying to stop bad pucks from getting through," said Baier, the solo anchor of "Special Report" on Fox News weekdays at 6 p.m. since 2009. "[T]here are a lot of the bad pucks out there when it comes to allegations. So we tried to follow through and see what was real and what was not and then report that on the air to the best of our ability."
Dominion's legal team has marshaled evidence reflecting that members of Baier's own team stood among those shooting the puck into the goal. Baier is one of the Fox News journalists, hosts and executives expected to be called in the trial phase of the case, which is to start next Monday.
The lies that Dominion switched votes from then-President Donald Trump to Democratic nominee Joe Biden in the 2020 election were pushed by Trump, his inner circle and his supporters. They often did so on Fox News, amplified and even - as Fox founder Rupert Murdoch conceded in testimony — sometimes endorsed by Fox stars.
Millions of viewers abandoned Fox for more conservative pro-Trump outlets after Election Night, when it became the first U.S. network to project that Biden would take Arizona. Dominion alleges the Murdochs and the network encouraged such false claims of electoral fraud to win back those viewers. Fox has regained its strong competitive footing, though all cable news has suffered declines as cord-cutting affects the industry.
According to Baier's current and former colleagues, he stands very much alone at Fox News — which has been pushed even farther to the right since the outset of the Trump years. Anchor Shepard Smith left Fox News in 2019 after primetime star Tucker Carlson targeted him on the air and the network did not publicly defend him. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace departed and two commentators who frequently appeared on Baier's show resigned in late 2021 after Carlson's avid defense of people who participated in the violent attack on the U.S. Congress in January 2021.
Baier and Wallace had separately aired segments contradicting Carlson's claims about the siege of the U.S. Capitol without mentioning his name; they also raised objections to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott and its news chief, Jay Wallace.
Last November, the attorney on Dominion's legal team questioning Baier paused to offer unexpected praise. "I have a lot of respect for how you personally covered the 2020 election and the false claims and conspiracy theories that arose in the months after it," said Megan Meier, an attorney with the Clare Locke law firm.
Baier said in his sworn remarks that he focuses with "horse blinders" on his one hour a night and doesn't follow what the right-wing primetime stars say. Even so, some colleagues in the Washington bureau say he too readily bends to pressure from the Trump circle or Fox headquarters in New York City.
Baier never received a response on his pitch for a special debunking lies of election fraud
In one sign of his isolation, Baier repeatedly sought to devote an hour-long Sunday evening special following the 2020 elections to set out and debunk the leading myths bolstering Trump's baseless claims of fraud. On "Special Report," Baier had addressed many of those individual claims, which had been promoted by Trump and embraced by many of his supporters. Baier told colleagues he thought the hour-long treatment would be an important way to show Fox's audience that it was taking their concerns seriously while presenting them with the facts about the election.
Baier's proposed hour, described to NPR by five people with direct knowledge, never aired. Network executives never even gave Baier - their chief political anchor - a direct verdict on his pitch, they said.
Through a spokesperson, Baier declined comment for this story. Fox declared Biden president-elect on Nov. 7 — a term that Baier was first to utter on the network. (Fox was the last network to affirm Biden's win publicly; evidence that has surfaced show that network executives wanted other networks to go first after the scarring experience of the Arizona projection.)
Baier initially raised the issue of the special in late November with colleagues and executives and continued to advocate it into early January. Baier stopped pushing for his proposed special within a few days of the attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021.
"By the time everything was moving forward, we were transitioning to covering Biden's first term," a Fox News executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "It was past the point of litigating this point any further." The official called it a "nascent" idea that bubbled up and popped during an intense news period.
The Fox executive noted that Baier, as executive editor of "Special Report," the highest-rated news program on cable television, had great leeway to set his own show's agenda. And Baier did debunk many of the myths in individual segments on his scheduled program in the weeks that followed.
Baier's reports caused heartburn at Fox headquarters
The stakes over what happened in the weeks after the November 2020 elections are high. Among those accused of defaming Dominion in the $1.6 billion suit are Baier's colleagues, including prominent hosts Maria Bartiromo, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro. Among those accused of letting them do so to shore up Fox's withering ratings are Fox Corp bosses Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch and Scott, the Fox News CEO.
The Delaware superior court judge overseeing the case recently ruled that the statements on Fox News about Dominion were false and defamatory. The jury is to decide whether Fox News acted with "actual malice" - that is, that it knowingly broadcast false and reputationally damaging statements or had strong reason to have known they were false. The jury is also to weigh whether parent company Fox Corp. is liable. Fox has argued that major news organizations will be prevented from robustly covering the news if a jury ruled it defamed Doninion, saying it was relaying claims from inherently newsworthy people, including a sitting president, about vital public events.
Baier stands, by his own testimony, apart from the network's ferocious opinion side driving the network's financial successes, a separation that he compared to a newspaper's news and editorial sections.
Even so, the reports he aired from his Washington D.C. studios often caused heartburn back at network headquarters in New York City. And with few exceptions, such as Neil Cavuto, other Fox hosts were hesitant to challenge the expectations of their network's leadership or audiences.
Baier sought to douse wild claims after Election Day. Internally, he called out tweets by Bartiromo, among others. "We have to prevent this stuff," Baier texted then-Washington Managing Editor Bill Sammon a few days after the election, but before Biden was projected to win the White House. "We need to fact-check."
The next day, Baier texted two golfing buddies, "There is NO evidence of fraud. None. Allegations — stories. Twitter. Bullsh — . Nothing concrete. That will affect the spread in any of these states."
After the elections, Fox hosts privately assailed reporters Kristin Fisher, Jacqui Henrich, and Eric Shawn, among others, for fact-checking baseless claims of election frauds. Executives chastised them and directed show producers to pull back on fact-checking segments — some of which appeared on Baier's program. In one exchange, Baier told his executive producer he actively wanted Shawn's fact-checking segments on his show.
'I keep having to defend this on the air'
Meanwhile, some of Baier's current and former journalistic peers regard him warily, believing he proves pliable under pressure from powerful conservative figures and corporate bosses.
Fox's projection of Arizona for Biden on Election Night — backed solely by the Associated Press - sparked outrage from the Trump campaign and the White House. On the air, Baier appeared shocked. Privately, Baier told pals it was "a sh--y call when they made it."
On November 5th, 2020, just a few days after Election Night, Baier wrote to executives in an email, "[T]his situation is getting uncomfortable. Really uncomfortable. I keep having to defend this on air. ... It's hurting us. The sooner we pull it — even if it gives us major egg ... [t]he better we are. In my opinion."
Sammon replied, "I can honestly say that it's not pride that's got us sticking to the call - it's math. I'm confident we will be proven right and all will be well." Biden ultimately won the state by fewer than 11,000 votes - a margin of 0.3 percent. The network stood by the call, though it proved controversial among those who analyze election statistics.
A couple of weeks later, according to audio accounts of a Zoom meeting first reported by the New York Times, Baier told senior colleagues he had been "bombarded" by Trump supporters. He asked for a review of how projections are made.
"I know the statistics and the numbers, but there has to be, like, this other layer," Baier told colleagues on the Zoom call, so they could "think beyond, about the implications."
Another Fox anchor, Martha MacCallum, agreed, citing an unexpected backlash. "There's that layer between statistics and news judgment about timing that I think is a factor."
A Fox spokesperson says Baier's remarks on the Zoom call were part of a post-mortem on what had happened, not an active effort to change course.
Rupert Murdoch: 'We can't have sneering at events'
On Nov. 20th, Rupert Murdoch emailed Scott to say that Sammon should be let go "right away" along with "the other guy" — Fox's political director, Chris Stirewalt. "Next few weeks will be very sensitive and we can't have sneering at events," Murdoch wrote. "[B]e a big message with Trump people."
"Sammon was told the inevitable today," Scott replied. "We were going to do Stirewalt next." She told the Murdochs that Fox would cast it as "a big shake-up." Sammon's departure was announced as a retirement while Stirewalt's was presented as part of a larger restructuring of its news team.
In private, the two political news editors were lacerating about what they saw as Baier's lack of nerve.
"More than 20 minutes into our flagship evening news broadcast and we're still focused solely on supposed election fraud — a month after the election," Sammon texted Stirewalt on Dec. 2, 2020. "It's remarkable how weak ratings makes good journalists do bad things."
Stirewalt signaled Baier was indulging blatantly false conspiracy theories by spending time on them rather than simply ignoring them.
"It's a real mess," Stirewalt wrote back. "But sadly no surprise based on the man I saw revealed on election night." He added, "What I see us doing is losing the silent majority of viewers as we chase the nuts off a cliff."
Fox lets the moment pass
That same day, the CEO, Scott, wrote angrily to another top executive after Eric Shawn appeared on MacCallum's program to fact-check Trump and a host on Hannity's program. "This has to stop now," Scott wrote. "This is bad business and there clearly is a lack of understanding what is happening in these shows. The audience is furious."
A Fox spokesperson said Scott was referring to the fact-checking of a guest appearing on Fox — that is, taking issue with material presented on another show on the network — not the idea of pinning down false statements.
The question of how forcefully Fox had rebutted false claims rose to the highest levels. By early December, Fox Corp. director Paul Ryan — a former Republican Speaker of the U.S. House — texted Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch calling the fraud challenges "a key inflection point for Fox." In his Dec. 6th text, he advised "A solid pushback (including editorial) of his baseless calls for overturning electors, etc."
Another director, Anne Dias, separately pushed the Murdochs to do whatever it took to disavow the claims. "I believe the time has come for Fox News, or for you Lachlan to take a stance," Dias wrote. "It is an existential moment for the nation ... and for Fox News as a brand."
Rupert Murdoch advised Lachlan, "We have to lead our viewers which is  not as easy as might seem."
Fox opinion hosts had encouraged Trump's rally on the Washington Mall on January 6th that led to the riot and the attack on Congress. In the haunting aftermath, Fox moved on. The network decided to let the moment pass. Baier's pitch to put the conspiracy theories around the election to rest withered on the vine.
Mary Yang contributed to this story. contributed to this story
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.