Rupert Murdoch says Fox stars 'endorsed' lies about 2020. He chose not to stop them
Under oath in a $1.6 billion defamation case, Murdoch says he wishes Fox News had been "stronger in denouncing" false claims of election fraud. Fox says the lawsuit threatens journalists' free speech.
In the heat of the moment, right after Election Day 2020, media magnate Rupert Murdoch knew that the hosts on his prized Fox News Channel were endorsing lies from then-President Donald Trump about election fraud.
And he did nothing to intervene to stop it.
Instead, Murdoch, the network's controlling owner, followed the lead of the network's senior executives in sidestepping the truth for a pro-Trump audience angered when confronted by the facts.
Asked whether he could have told Fox News' chief executive and its stars to stop giving airtime to Rudy Giuliani — a key Trump campaign attorney peddling election lies — Murdoch assented. "I could have," Murdoch said. "But I didn't."
That's the picture that emerges in evidence presented Monday by the voting-tech company Dominion Voting Systems in a blockbuster $1.6 billion defamation suit against both Fox News and its parent company, Fox Corp.
Dominion's legal team is presenting only the evidence it believes will propel its case; Fox Corp. is arguing that the parent company and its top executives are wrongly being held responsible for reporting on the baseless assertions of a president and his advisers.
"Dominion's lawsuit has always been more about what will generate headlines than what can withstand legal and factual scrutiny," according to a statement released by a spokeswoman on behalf of Fox Corp. and Fox News.
The Fox statement called Dominion's stance "extreme," citing free speech concerns, and characterized the voting-tech company's legal position as "a blatant violation of the First Amendment" that would "prevent journalists from basic reporting."
To counter that defense, Dominion's legal filings summon the words of seemingly authoritative figures: Fox Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch and his top corporate advisers.
Murdoch admits Fox News stars endorsed false stolen-election claim
Speaking under oath, Murdoch confirmed the suggestion by a Dominion lawyer that Fox was "trying to straddle the line between spewing conspiracy theories on one hand, yet calling out the fact that they are actually false on the other."
Asked by a Dominion attorney whether "Fox endorsed at times this false notion of a stolen election," Murdoch demurred, saying, "Not Fox, no. Not Fox. But maybe Lou Dobbs, maybe Maria [Bartiromo] as commentators."
The lawyer pressed on. Did Fox's Bartiromo endorse it?
Murdoch's reply: "Yes. C'mon."
Fox News host Jeanine Pirro? "I think so."
Then-Fox Business Network host Dobbs? "Oh, a lot."
Fox News prime-time star Sean Hannity? "A bit."
Pressed whether they endorsed the narrative of a stolen election, Murdoch finally gave in: "Yes. They endorsed."
Fox denies executives had "direct role" in broadcasting false claims
Dominion initially sued the network and its parent company separately. Fox Corp. has tried to sidestep the case, saying the decisions were left up to the executives and journalists within Fox News.
Similarly, Murdoch sought to distinguish between the two in his sworn remarks. When asked whether Fox News embraced the idea of election fraud, he pointed instead to his own stars: "No. Some of our commentators were endorsing it."
Fox Corp. argues that Dominion has produced no evidence showing that Rupert Murdoch; his son Lachlan Murdoch, Fox Corp.'s executive chairman; or other top corporate executives played a "direct role" in the decisions to air election-fraud claims. In their own filing Monday, Fox Corp.'s attorneys say the communications presented by Dominion that involve Fox executives are not directly related to the 115 allegedly defamatory statements at issue in the case.
"After obtaining millions of documents and taking dozens of depositions— including depositions of Fox Corporation's CEO, Fox Corporation's Chairman, Fox News's CEO, Fox News's President, and dozens of producers, on-air talent, and executives—Dominion has produced zero evidentiary support for its dubious theory," Fox Corp.'s filing claims.
Even so, Fox Corp.'s chief legal officer, Viet Dinh, acknowledged under oath that executives in the corporation's chain of command have an obligation "to prevent and correct known falsehoods." (Fox Corp.'s and Fox News' legal defense is handled by a team of outside lawyers led by Dan Webb, a highly regarded Chicago-based corporate litigator.) Some Fox News journalists debunked false election-fraud claims in reports. And star Tucker Carlson sharply questioned the basis for Trump's outspoken advocate Sidney Powell on his program. But Fox News never corrected the record on all the baseless allegations that unspooled on its airwaves.
Dominion lays out Murdochs' hands-on role at Fox News after the election
Emails and other communications introduced into the case by Dominion reflect deep involvement by the Murdochs and other Fox Corp. senior figures in the network's editorial path.
Each Murdoch speaks roughly daily to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott, she testified. (While Lachlan Murdoch confirmed his daily chat with Scott, Rupert Murdoch said it was only once or twice a week.)
"I'm a journalist at heart," the elder Murdoch, who is just two weeks shy of his 92nd birthday, said in his deposition. "I like to be involved in these things."
He had been resolute about defending Fox News' call of the key state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night — Nov. 3, 2020. Murdoch testified that he could hear Trump shouting in the background as the then-president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, told him the situation was "terrible."
To which, Murdoch said he replied, "'Well, the numbers are the numbers.'"
"We are still somewhat exposed on Arizona"
Yet a panic set in as pro-Trump viewers abandoned Fox News following the Arizona call. And when hosts scrambled to promote Trump's false claims of fraud, Fox News executives seized on it as a valuable strategy, according to the evidence presented by Dominion, even as at least two of Fox's corporate directors and a top corporate official took exception.
By Nov. 5, Hannity was on the air saying, "It will be impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results — that's a fact."
And Dinh was warning Lachlan Murdoch, Scott and a top deputy that "Hannity is getting awfully close to the line with his commentary and guests tonight." The next day, Rupert Murdoch warned that if Trump refused to concede graciously, "we should watch Sean especially and others don't sound the same."
Scott forwarded his recommendation to the top executive over prime-time programming, Meade Cooper. Along with another executive, she canceled Pirro's show that weekend over fears that the "guests are all going to say the election is being stolen and if she pushes back at all it will be just a token," according to the filings.
On Nov. 7, Fox projected that Biden had won the election. The elder Murdoch told his son that Fox could have gone first once more, as it had in Arizona; "I think it's good to be careful," Lachlan Murdoch responded. "Especially as we are still somewhat exposed on Arizona."
On Nov. 8, Rupert Murdoch emailed Scott to say that Fox News was "[g]etting creamed" by CNN. Under oath, he later said that he, Scott and Lachlan Murdoch held "a long talk" about "the direction Fox should take" that day in response to the falling ratings. They decided together to give play to Trump's baseless assertions. "[T]his was big news," Murdoch said in his deposition. "The President of the United States was making wild claims, but that is news."
The next day, Scott wrote to Rupert Murdoch that Fox needed to retain "the audience who loves and trusts us. ... [W]e need to make sure they know we aren[']t abandoning them." And she wrote to Lachlan Murdoch that the network would "highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them."
By Nov. 13, Raj Shah, a senior vice president at Fox Corp., was advising Lachlan Murdoch, Scott and Dinh of the "strong conservative and viewer backlash to Fox that we are working to track and mitigate." He said that positive impressions among Fox News viewers "dropped precipitously after Election Day to the lowest levels we've ever seen."
The next day, Lachlan Murdoch warned Scott that a Fox News anchor's coverage of a pro-Trump rally was "[s]mug and obnoxious"; Scott responded that she was "calling now" to remedy. (Anchor Leland Vittert's final appearance on Fox was in January 2021; he is now an anchor for the fledgling cable news outlet NewsNation.)
Fox News hosts would play a key role in stoking energy ahead of Trump's Jan. 6, 2021, protests that became a bloody siege of the U.S. Capitol.
Warnings from a former House speaker and another corporate director
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, an anti-Trump Republican, sits on Fox Corp.'s board of directors. He said he told the Murdochs "that Fox News should not be spreading conspiracy theories." And he testified that he advised them that the post-election period represented an inflection point in which Fox could pivot away from its prior support for Trump.
Rupert Murdoch played an integral role in advising his two major U.S. newspapers — the New York Post and The Wall Street Journal — to editorialize against Trump's false claims. Trump's campaign lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, were no longer welcome on-air by mid-December.
On Jan. 8, Murdoch told a former executive that "Fox News [is] very busy pivoting. ... We want to make Trump a non person."
Fox Corp. board director Anne Dias wrote to the Murdochs on Jan. 11, 2021. "I believe the time has come for Fox News or for you, Lachlan, to take a stance. It is an existential moment for the nation and for Fox News as a brand."
Rupert advised Lachlan, "Just tell her ... Fox News, which called the election correctly, is pivoting as fast as possible. We have to lead our viewers which is  not as easy as it might seem."
Behind the scenes, however, Fox News chief executive Scott had been wooing Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder, major advertiser and pro-Trump conspiracy theorist, according to Dominion's filing. Scott sent Lindell a personal note and a gift while encouraging Fox shows to book him as a guest to "get ratings."
On Jan. 26, Tucker Carlson had Lindell on his show. Rupert Murdoch told Dominion's attorneys he could stop taking money for MyPillow ads, "[B]ut I'm not about to."
An attorney for Dominion suggested, "It is not red or blue, it is green."
According to the filing, Murdoch agreed.
Karl Baker and Mary Yang contributed to this story.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.