Multiple academic and research-center studies have soundly debunked President Donald Trump’s repeated warnings that mail-in ballots—supposedly a Democratic plot to rig the November election in which Trump is running for a second term as 45th president of the United States—are rife with fraud.
The leadership of Fox News, however, has apparently decided that the president’s made-up claims—eagerly parroted by primetime opinion-mongers Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham—could also be validated by the Trump-friendly cable channel’s nominal straight-news division.
In recent weeks, Fox News’ Brain Room—the channel’s longtime research resource for its dwindling population of fact-based journalists, which suffered disproportionately in the latest round of layoffs—launched a behind-the-scenes operation that current and former staffers say is designed to reinforce and amplify Trump’s erroneous accusations.
“Starting this Monday, October 5th, the Brainroom Research Team will launch the Election Integrity Project,” Fox News Vice President and Managing Editor Tom Lowell wrote in a Sept. 30 memo. “Included will be a one-stop document broken up by state that showcases different stories where election integrity is potentially compromised.”
Lowell added that the Election Integrity Project will focus on such alleged problems as “erroneous NY ballots, ballots being thrown into rivers, etc.” The latter is a favorite claim in Trump’s rally speeches, but has no basis in fact.
Fox News declined to comment on this story.
“Officially, it looks like an attempt to report on election irregularities. What it feels like is an attempt to push more baseless conspiracy theories and scare the viewers into thinking the election is being ‘stolen.’ It isn’t,” one Fox News veteran with direct knowledge of the Election Integrity Project, told The Daily Beast. “It’s alarming that the Brain Room is a part of this, like it’s an attempt to give it an air of legitimacy. I don’t recall ever seeing anything like this before.”
This person added: “It feels like an attempt to use the Brain Room to try to lend credibility to something that isn’t credible. It feels like a stunt to support Trump’s baseless allegations that the Democrats are trying to ‘steal’ the election. If it is a collection or database of alleged voter fraud examples, I could see it being used to support Trump’s efforts to contest the election results, if Biden wins.”
A second Fox News staffer—who, like other current employees quoted in this story, asked not to be further identified for fear of retaliation—said the Election Integrity Project “seems a logical effort to collect information about mail-in ballots that could skew the results… Fox clearly wants to portray mailed-in ballots in the most negative light, since Democrats favor it and Trump’s re-election, if polls are to be believed this time around, is not at all a foregone conclusion. He and GOP leaders are promoting doubt about the system, which arguably has its flaws, and of course Fox serves as a force multiplier to their narratives.”
Fox News’ longtime campaign reporter, Carl Cameron, who since retiring in August 2017 has become a vocal critic of his former employer, said that as the Brain Room has become increasingly politicized, fewer and fewer of Fox’s fact-based journalists depend on it for research.
“Reporters need to have a reliable research operation,” Cameron told The Daily Beast. “Every single time there’s a budget story, every single time there’s a legislative story, you gotta ask, how many times has this been brought up and failed? There are questions that need to be asked for context. And if the Brain Room can’t come up with facts, as opposed to aspiration, the reporters are screwed… If that stuff’s corrupted, we’re screwed.”
Cameron added: “Keeping an eye on that [potential voter fraud] is fine. Contradicting reality is propaganda.”
In what seemed to several Fox News staffers an attempt to conceal a partisan motive with a fig leaf of journalistic legitimacy, Lowell’s memo included the passage: “NOTE: keyword here is ‘potential’ because there might be instances where we find a story where a reporter claims ballots are being thrown out, but our teams cannot verify the actions/claims in a story.”
The memo continues: “In addition to those types of stories, the Brainroom will also compile state-by-state mail-in and absentee ballot rules as they currently stand, along with the major legal cases that have been getting a lot of media attention. Please note the word ‘major’ because as of today, there are over 300 lawsuits on election ballot fraud. There will also be a link to the Brennan Center, which has compiled all of the 300+ lawsuits in case anyone wants sift through all the lawsuits.”
A Fox News staffer said Lowell’s mention of the Brennan Center for Justice’s compilation of lawsuits, but not its conclusions about the absence of voter fraud, is “interesting.”
“The Myth of Voter Fraud,” was the headline on a recent Brennan Center study. “Extensive research reveals that fraud is very rare. Yet repeated, false allegations of fraud can make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to participate in elections.”
Voter fraud “is absolutely not an issue and is a figment of Donald Trump’s imagination that Fox is helping to promote,” this Fox News staffer told The Daily Beast. “Trump takes his constituents as Fox takes its viewers—naïve and uninformed—so they’re both getting away with it. This is extremely deleterious to the voting population. By finding outlier stories—low-percentage cases of something going wrong with a ballot—they are buttressing Donald Trump’s conspiracy theory of voter fraud.
“This should come as no surprise, however, because Fox is taking advantage of the fact that its audience only gets its facts from Fox—and the people running Fox know that.”
While various Fox News journalists, notably Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, White House correspondent John Roberts, and politics editor Chris Stirewalt, have pushed back against the voter fraud myth in recent weeks, the allegation has nevertheless been a regular feature on the channel’s programming.
On Oct. 7, weekend news anchor Eric Shawn did a lengthy segment on a federal judge’s ruling in New Jersey against the Trump campaign’s efforts to limit mail-in balloting, but included unrelated allegations of ballot-dumping by mail carriers in both New Jersey and West Virginia.
Before the launch of the Election Integrity Project, on Aug. 17, nominally straight-news anchor Martha MacCallum—who was later compelled to correct herself—pushed a debunked myth claiming that dead people had voted by absentee ballot in Michigan.
“They had 864 dead people vote,” MacCallum erroneously claimed. “That is an intentional action. It’s a small number, but it’s worth noting, because it's an intentional action. It's not a mistake. So there is reason to be very cautious about how this is going to work going forward.”
Meanwhile, Fox & Friends, Tucker Carlson Tonight, Hannity, and The Ingraham Angle have been loudly beating the drum of supposedly rampant voter fraud.
On Sept. 28, for instance, both Hannity and Ingraham promoted Project Veritas activist James O’Keefe’s discredited claim of “the biggest systemic voter fraud smoking gun in American history,” as Hannity framed it, by supposedly showing ballot harvesting—which is legal in Minnesota—and activists paying for votes. The “insider” at the center of O’Keefe’s supposed bombshell has since backtracked, and is not seen as credible; he reportedly offered to bribe another figure at the center of O’Keefe’s story.
“I hope the attorney general of the United States is watching tonight and will watch that video,” Hannity declared. “We need to get to the truth.”
While ballot trickery certainly exists, a recent 20-year study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology political science professor Charles Stewart III and election expert Amber McReynolds concluded that it is “extremely rare” and allegations of massive mail-in fraud are “simply not true.”
“We are talking about an occurrence that translates to about 0.00006 percent of total votes cast,” they wrote in The Hill.
Fox News Vice president Tom Lowell, the author of the Election Integrity Project memo, joined Fox in 2003 from local television news jobs in Hartford, Boston, Miami, and Erie, Pa.
Internally, Fox News President Jay Wallace praised Lowell’s “creativity” even as colleagues expressed concerns about his adherence to journalistic standards—for instance Lowell’s penchant for promoting sensational stories from Breitbart News without fact-checking, arguing they would please Fox News’ viewership, stir up controversy and get clicks.
“He has a local news, ‘if it bleeds it leads’ sensibility,” one colleague told The Daily Beast, adding that Lowell also possesses an “ornery” personality. Described as a difficult, even tyrannical, boss, Lowell manages “all national and international correspondents and enterprise investigative reporting across FNC’s television and digital platforms,” according to a company press release.
Lowell was promoted to his current straight-news role in late 2016 after years as Megyn Kelly’s prime-time executive producer. He is an unabashed conservative and “MAGA guy,” according to people who have worked with him. However, a source close to Lowell pushed back on this notion, noting: “Lowell’s disgust at how the president treated Megyn Kelly during the 2016 election, which was on full display in the movie Bombshell, flies in the face of the idea he’s anything close to a MAGA guy.”
Diana Falzone was an on-camera reporter for Fox News from 2012 to 2018. In May 2017, she filed a gender discrimination and disability lawsuit against the network and settled, and left the company in March 2018.