The Fox News hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham vociferously defended themselves for sending text messages on Jan. 6 that urged Mark Meadows, the last White House chief of staff under Donald J. Trump, to persuade the then-president to take action to stop the Capitol attack.
The texts made vivid something that was already not a secret — that key players at the network have acted as informal advisers to Mr. Trump. It is a situation that flouts journalistic ethical norms but does not appear to dissuade Fox viewers. In November, Fox News was the most-watched network not just in cable news but in all of cable television, with an average audience of 1.5 million.
Mr. Hannity and Ms. Ingraham said on Tuesday that their texts — which were read aloud in Congress Monday night by Representative Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming — did not differ from their public statements that day.
The two said that in their view, the pro-Trump siege on Jan. 6 — in which rioters breached and entered the Capitol building, police officers were injured, millions of dollars of damage was done and one rioter was fatally shot — was similar to previous instances of civil unrest, adding that it had been overblown by other news media outlets. Their on-air statements continued their strong defense of Mr. Trump, 11 months after his attempt to subvert the election and his encouragement of the mob that carried out the violence.
The text messages also suggested that the hosts believed that Mr. Trump — who had delivered a combative speech on the Ellipse near the White House to thousands of his supporters in the hours before the breach — bore some responsibility for what took place that day.
“Mark, the president needs to tell people in the Capitol to go home,” Ms. Ingraham wrote. “This is hurting all of us. He is destroying his legacy.”
Brian Kilmeade, a host of “Fox & Friends,” echoed that concern. “Please, get him on TV,” he wrote in a text to Mr. Meadows. “Destroying everything you have accomplished.”
Mr. Hannity texted: “Can he make a statement? Ask people to leave the Capitol.”
Ann Marie Lipinski, a former editor in chief of The Chicago Tribune who runs the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, said that the Fox News hosts had violated journalistic norms in sending advice to a White House official as news was unfolding.
“For there to be an ongoing, live violent riot playing out at the Capitol during which anchors are communicating their preferences about what the president should do with the president’s staff is inappropriate in the least, and highly unethical by my lights,” Ms. Lipinski said.
“I think that’s part of the bargain that Fox News offers its viewers — ‘We have a different relationship with the government and a different relationship with the Republican Party,’” she added. “I think viewers in large part go there for it.”
Understand the U.S. Capitol Riot
On Jan. 6, 2021, a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol.
A representative for Fox News declined to comment for this article. The network has not made any public statement about the text messages.
On Tuesday, after showing a clip of Ms. Cheney reading aloud the text she had sent to Mr. Meadows, Ms. Ingraham, who hosts “The Ingraham Angle,” accused “the regime media” of “somehow trying to twist this message to try to tar me as a liar, a hypocrite who privately sounded the alarm on Jan. 6, but publicly downplayed it.”
On his show, Mr. Hannity set up a confrontation between Geraldo Rivera and Dan Bongino, a right-wing polemicist who joined the channel in 2019.
“This was a riot that was unleashed, incited and inspired by the president of the United States, which targeted the heart of American democracy,” Mr. Rivera said on the program.
Mr. Hannity told Mr. Rivera to stop talking and reminded his viewers that his guest’s words represented only his opinion. He then shifted to the House inquiry, saying, “The question is, this corrupt committee. The question is, why this riot and not 574 other riots?”
After Mr. Rivera asked the host to “remember the frame of mind you were in when you wrote that text on Jan. 6,” Mr. Hannity turned it over to Mr. Bongino.
“The back-stabbing of the president you’re engaging in is really disgusting,” Mr. Bongino said, addressing Mr. Rivera.
The close relationship of Mr. Trump and Fox News started in 2011, when Mr. Trump appeared as a weekly contributor to “Fox & Friends.” After he took office, Mr. Trump and Fox News grew closer. The president, as well his advisers, allies and family members, became fixtures on the channel, and the prime-time hosts largely promoted his policies.
After the election, some anchors at Fox News and its corporate sibling Fox Business Network were accused of having provided a venue for Mr. Trump’s false conspiracy theory that voting machines were rigged, a theory endorsed by the violent agitators on Jan. 6. In February, Smartmatic, an election technology company, filed a $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox and named the anchors Maria Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro as defendants. In March, Dominion Voting Systems filed a lawsuit seeking $1.6 billion in damages from Fox. Both suits are pending. Fox is seeking to dismiss both suits.
Over the last 11 months, Fox News’s prime-time hosts have downplayed the Capitol siege. On a July episode, Ms. Ingraham said that “many riots in American history,” including the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, “were far worse than this.”
In September, Tucker Carlson, the highest-rated anchor in cable news, showed clips from Jan. 6 and said of the people inside the Capitol, “They don’t look like terrorists. They look like tourists.”
Key Aspects of the Jan. 6 Inquiry
“They were not insurrectionists,” he continued. “They shouldn’t have been there. They weren’t trying to overthrow the government. That’s a total crock.”
In November, Mr. Carlson released a three-part special on the Jan. 6 attack, “Patriot Purge,” made for the Fox Nation streaming platform. It included the baseless suggestion that the riot was a so-called “false flag” operation created to demonize the political right.
There was some in-house dissent. Mr. Rivera, who joined Fox News in 2001, publicly criticized the Carlson special. So did two conservative Fox News contributors, Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes, who quit in protest.
Mr. Hannity has also played down the riot. Last week, when Mr. Meadows was a guest on his program, he took the opportunity to praise how Mr. Trump had handled the events of the day and said that he “condemned” the congressional committee examining Jan. 6.
Mr. Hannity’s closeness to the former president is well known. In 2018, he appeared at Mr. Trump’s side during a campaign rally. Fox News rebuked him for that display of partisanship, saying in a statement at the time, “This was an unfortunate distraction and has been addressed.”
The revelation of the three hosts’ Jan. 6 communications with Mr. Meadows made headlines nine days after CNN fired Chris Cuomo, a termination that came several days after a report released by the New York attorney general with new details on the role the anchor had played in advising his brother, Andrew Cuomo, the former governor of New York, as he faced sexual harassment accusations.
Fox News has made a ratings comeback since a year ago, when it lost some viewers to Newsmax, a competing conservative news network. The ratings dive came after Fox News had made the earliest projection that Joseph R. Biden had beaten Mr. Trump in the key state of Arizona on election night.
In the months after the Arizona call, as Fox appeared to reassert its pro-Trump stance, the network fired a veteran politics editor, Chris Stirewalt, and the liberal commentator Donna Brazile left the channel, while another, Juan Williams, left “The Five.”
Chris Wallace, who hosted “Fox News Sunday,” was one of the channel’s anchors who described a connection between the Jan. 6 violence and Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. “You had the president for an hour on the Ellipse filling a crowd with misstatements, with facts that have been absolutely shredded in state courts, in federal courts, by Trump judges, by a conservative majority in the Supreme Court, by Trump’s own attorney general,” Mr. Wallace said in a broadcast that day. He had also expressed concern about the Carlson special to Fox News management.
On Sunday, after 18 years at Fox News, Mr. Wallace left Fox News for a new job at CNN.