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GOP governor says he's urged Fox News to break out of its 'echo chamber'

At the Republican National Committee's spring retreat in Tennessee over the weekend, a swing-state GOP governor told major donors the party's future political success depended in part on Fox News.

In a speech about attracting independents and young people to the Republican Party, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said he had urged Fox News to break out of its "echo chamber" for Republicans to prosper.

Sununu's remarks echo a consistent theme found unvarnished in the private communications of Fox's stars and executives by Dominion Voting Systems in its $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against the network: That Fox is an integral player in Republican politics and the conservative movement.

"We have to start thinking about the long game," Sununu told Republican donors at the Four Seasons Hotel in Nashville. "We get ourselves tied up in issues. I'm not saying they're not important, but they ain't making the team bigger."

He said the party had an appealing "product" for voters, including younger voters, with an emphasis on low government regulation, low taxes and local governmental control.

Then he started to talk about Fox News.

"I was on with [Fox News business anchor and senior vice president Neil] Cavuto this morning, and I talk to the leadership at Fox all the time," Sununu said.

"I go, 'Look guys, I saw a panel discussion with four panelists on Fox and they all were literally agreeing with each other. ... They're talking in an echo chamber. What are you doing to grow the team?'"

"If you don't do it," he said, "we're going to lose."

Sununu said cable networks MSNBC and CNN were run by Democrats, and that Republicans should appear on their shows and own them.

That was the thrust of the governor's message, his communications director told NPR.

"He was telling Republicans they should be going on other media channels, not just Fox," Ben Vihstadt said. "Republicans watch those channels too."

NPR obtained an audio recording of an excerpt of the talk from Lauren Windsor, a liberal activist and consultant, who acquired them from an attendee. Vihstadt authenticated the governor's remarks.

Legal filings underscore Fox's cozy relationship with GOP

Sununu's remarks come at a delicate moment for Fox. Its lawyers are simultaneously girding for a six-week trial, set to begin Tuesday morning after a one-day delay, and negotiating over a possible settlement with Dominion's legal team.

Dominion's case stems from baseless assertions on Fox that the voting tech company's machines threw votes from then-President Donald Trump to Democratic challenger Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. Dominion alleges that Fox tried to win back Trump voters alienated by Fox's projection — before any other television network on election night — that Biden would win Arizona. One way the network appealed to Trump loyalists was to broadcast the lies of election fraud promoted by Trump and his allies. (The network says it was reporting on newsworthy allegations from the nation's top elected official and its allies.)

It's long been known that Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch has sought to influence elections in his native Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., both in his news pages and programs and behind the scenes. Former Republican vice presidential candidate and U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan sits on the corporate board of Fox Corp., the network's corporate parent. (He was among those who argued that Fox had to release its embrace of election conspiracy theories.)

And Trump drew from a roster of Fox personalities for appointments to his administration. Fox stars Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs and others advised him off the air. (Dobbs would be forced out a day after another election tech company, Smartmatic, sued Fox in a $2.7 billion defamation claim.)

In response to a request for comment, a Fox spokesperson noted that surveys suggest its audiences — which are far larger than its peers — include the most Democrats and independents watching.

Back in November 2020, NPR reported that Hannity invited RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel on his show on the night before Biden would be projected to win the presidency.

An internal GOP memo to prepare McDaniel reflected full knowledge of what would be asked, setting out the specifics of the show's lengthy opening segment — including its guests and subjects — and Hannity's main points. They focused on suspicions of voter fraud.

But, in case there was any doubt, the material gathered by Dominion's legal team cements the image of Fox as an institution with a deeply ingrained conservative outlook and whose leaders are closely interwoven with Republican politics.

A tip about a Biden campaign ad, a proposed Senate run and a warning about Fox journalists

In late September 2020, Murdoch warned Trump's son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, that the Biden campaign ads were better. The next day, the media magnate, whose former wife had helped reconcile Kushner with his wife Ivanka Trump after a brief split, followed up with another email.

"Your adv at 1.0 pm this Sunday an improvement, but Biden in same football [game] is extremely good. Or I think so! Will send it," Murdoch said in an email made public through legal proceedings.

On Nov. 10, a few days after Fox projected Biden's win, star host Maria Bartiromo texted former Trump former chief political adviser Steve Bannon, "Omg I'm so depressed. I can't take this"

She continued, "I am watching the world move forward. & it's so upsetting steve."

Bannon had no plans to stand still. He laid out a multi-point plan that included delegitimizing Biden as president, Republicans' winning both U.S. Senate seats in Georgia, and getting Bartiromo elected to the U.S. Senate in New York — all while prepping Trump for a 2024 White House bid.

On Nov. 14, 2020, Fox Corp. executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert's son, warned chief executive Suzanne Scott about the tone of Fox's coverage of a pro-Trump rally.

"News guys have to be careful how they cover this rally," Lachlan Murdoch wrote. "So far some of the side comments are slightly anti, and they shouldn't be. The narrative should be this is a huge celebration of the president."

On Nov. 16, Rupert Murdoch affirmed his interest in aiding the Republican drive to win the Senate in an email to Scott: "Trump will concede eventually and we should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can."

Despite his criticisms of Fox, Sununu does not appear to disdain the network. He appeared on its news program "America's Newsroom" Monday morning, less than 48 hours after his pointed remarks in Nashville.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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