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The texts Fox hosts sent during the Jan. 6 riot don't match how Fox covered it on air

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Fox News is in damage control mode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

SEAN HANNITY: Now, all riots, obviously, are bad - all of them. And on this program, we strongly condemn the violence on January 6, just like we condemned all of the violent riots from the summer of 2020.

KELLY: That is Fox News host Sean Hannity talking about text messages that he sent then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows on January 6 as rioters were storming the U.S. Capitol. The messages were released earlier this week by the House committee investigating January 6. Over and over, they reveal Fox News hosts - Hannity, also Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade - pleading with Meadows to get his boss, then-President Trump, to stop the attack. The messages also stand in stark contrast to the way Fox has covered the insurrection on-air this past year.

And I want to bring in two voices to examine that disconnect - NPR's Tom Dreisbach, who's been covering the attack and its aftermath. Hey, Tom.

TOM DREISBACH, BYLINE: Hey.

KELLY: And NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Mary Louise.

KELLY: David, you start and set the stage a bit further for us. What are some of the other text messages that have now come to light?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, they heard from Brian Kilmeade. He's one of the hosts of "Fox & Friends," an opinion show in the morning - very popular - and somebody in contact with the former president and his advisers. He texted on that day, please get him - meaning Trump - on TV destroying everything you have accomplished. Laura Ingraham wrote, Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home. This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy. Interesting choice of words - all of us. Sean Hannity - simply - can he make a statement - meaning Trump - ask people to leave the Capitol? Of course, that didn't happen until many hours later. In fact, too late to have a meaningful effect on what was there.

Very different from the tenor of what you heard subsequent to that. Let's hear from Laura Ingraham - what she had to say on the show the night of the attack, suggesting to her audience of who really might be behind that siege of the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FOX NEWS")

LAURA INGRAHAM: Now, they were likely not all Trump supporters, and there are some reports that antifa sympathizers may have been sprinkled throughout the crowd. We'll have more on that later.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, I think what you heard was an incredible diminishment of how serious it was in terms of what Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity had to say to viewers on their airwaves in front of millions of viewers and a kind of erasure of then-President Donald Trump as a player in all of this.

KELLY: And I want to bring in Tom on that in just a second. But David, one more to you. Now that these text messages are out there in public as of this week, how long before Fox hosts address this, took any of this on and covered it on-air?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it took about 24 hours for Hannity and Ingraham to address it themselves. Amazingly, right after those texts were released, Hannity had Mark Meadows on the air with him on the show - didn't touch it.

KELLY: Yeah. And Tom Dreisbach, jump in here because I want to hear just a little bit more about how the - these months, between January 6 and now, just how big has the gap been between what Fox News hosts were saying on-air and what they were texting privately to top White House officials?

DREISBACH: Well, I think what the text messages revealed in many ways is how broadly the narrative around January 6 has shifted. In the moment that it was happening and immediately afterwards, the event was almost universally condemned on the right, including by President Trump. It's important to remember what Donald Trump himself said in taped remarks the day after, on January 7.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country. And to those who broke the law, you will pay.

DREISBACH: That was January 7. Now and as soon as this summer, Trump was saying something completely different. He was describing the rioters who have been arrested and charged with crimes as political prisoners. And he says that January 6 was actually just a protest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: I reverse it. The insurrection took place on November 3 - that was Election Day - and before and after. That was, to me, the insurrection. And the - January 6 was a protest.

KELLY: So what's going on with this evolution? Is this Fox coverage mirroring an evolution in what Trump and his loyalists have been saying or are they driving that evolution? Or do you think it's some of both?

DREISBACH: It's a little hard to say who's driving it. It's sort of a chicken-and-the-egg issue, who is in control of this narrative. But I would say that early on, the seeds of this counter-narrative were being planted. As you heard, Fox hosts like Laura Ingraham were arguing that leftists or antifa were actually causing the violence, even though rioters who were there that day say that is completely false. Then there was this narrative that the violence was being overblown in order to discredit Trump and his supporters.

Most recently, what we've seen is from folks like Tucker Carlson - Fox host - this argument that is largely based on conspiracy theories that federal agents must have been instigating the attack that day, causing a sort of false flag so they could launch a, quote, "war on terror" against Trump supporters. And at this point, I should say there's really no evidence to support any of those narratives

KELLY: Well, this prompts a wider question. David, is Fox News - should we be calling it Fox News? This is a TV channel. They track current events. Are they performing journalism?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think we can answer that question just by looking at what's happened in recent days. Fox News at no point is addressing the fact that, you know, these opinion journalists who are primetime stars are acting essentially as fully part of the Trump political circle. They're never addressing that. That's not - you know, you're still supposed to admit facts against your rooting interest as an opinion journalist. It's not happening here. The way to think about Fox News right now is as a highly profitable political operation to which some journalists are appended, some of them trying to do honest reporting.

KELLY: Well, and some journalists jumping ship, as we saw with Chris Wallace this week.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. Wallace raised objections about Tucker Carlson's documentary that Tom alluded to about January 6 itself, that it was filled with lies and unfounded conspiracy theories. He objected to the CEO, Suzanne Scott, and got nowhere with it.

KELLY: And this brings me to my last question, which is all of this matters because a whole lot of people are watching and listening to what Fox broadcasts. Tom, you have spent the last year talking to people connected to the riot. How closely are they watching? How entrenched are these alternate narratives?

DREISBACH: Well, just today, PolitiFact declared that lies about the January 6 attack on the Capitol are the lie of the year. I think that's a recognition of just how entrenched these views have become. I talk to people who were at the riot, who have admitted to breaching the Capitol of their own will. And after the Tucker Carlson series aired on Fox, on Fox Nation, they started questioning their own experience not based on what they saw or did that day themselves, but based on what they saw on TV.

And we are seeing some of that playing out in the broader public. You look at polling, and a majority of Republicans think too much attention is being paid to the attack on the Capitol now. And the number of Republicans in the public who say it's important to prosecute the rioters is going down by about 20 points, according to Pew Research, over just the last several months.

KELLY: NPR investigative correspondent Tom Dreisbach and NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks to both of you.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

DREISBACH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANDERHOLM AND LANE 8'S "BLUEBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Dreisbach is a correspondent on NPR's Investigations team focusing on breaking news stories.
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.