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Rupert Murdoch admits Fox News stars ‘endorsed’ bogus election fraud claims

Right-wing media empire’s chairman gives sworn deposition in Dominion’s $1.6bn defamation lawsuit

Alex Woodward
New York
Tuesday 28 February 2023 10:23 GMT
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Fox anchor says network is blocking him from reporting on Dominion texts
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Rupert Murdoch admitted during a sworn deposition that top personalities at Fox News promoted a baseless narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump, according to a recent filing in a voting machine company’s billion-dollar lawsuit against the network.

The chair of the right-wing media empire said that hosts including Maria Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro “endorsed at times this false notion of a stolen election,” claims that the former president and his allies continue to amplify as he seeks re-election to office in 2024.

“I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight,” Mr Murdoch said, according to court documents.

His remarks follow a revealing 192-page filing in Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6bn defamation lawsuit against the network, a bombshell document that compiles testimony and messages from Fox News employees that piece together how the network aired evidence-free claims about election “irregularities” to keep viewers enthralled with conspiracy theories against their own private admissions that, in their words, were “nonsense” and “bull****”.

The latest filing reveals that Mr Murdoch and Fox leadership met days after Election Day in November 2020 over concerns of “mounting viewer backlash to Fox” after the network correctly predicted Joe Biden won the state of Arizona but agreed to air “wild claims” that the election was stolen from Mr Trump as “positive impressions of Fox News among our viewers dropped precipitously after Election Day to the lowest levels we’ve ever seen.”

Despite the network’s top officials and widely watched anchors privately acknowledging that then-president Trump and his allies were lying, the network continued to bring them on air to amplify those claims, which also energised competing right-wing media networks that appeared to threaten Fox viewership, according to court documents.

One one point, Mr Murdoch suggested that longtime Fox News vice president Bill Sammon should be “[let] go right away” over the Arizona race call, despite its accuracy, to send “a big message with Trump people,” according to the filing.

Paul Ryan, the former Republican House Speaker who serves on the Fox Corporation board of directors, said in a deposition that he told Mr Murdoch and his son Lachlan Murdoch, the executive chair and chief executive officer of Fox Corporation, that Fox News “should not be spreading conspiracy theories” and instead should pivot away from the former president “and stop spouting election lies.”

On 5 November 2020, Mr Hannity wrongly told viewers that it would be “impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results”. A deposition from Fox’s chief legal officer Viet Dinh claims that he warned Fox Corporation leadership at the time that Mr Hannity “is getting awfully close to the line with his commentary and guests tonight.”

Rupert Murdoch. (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

According to the previous filing from Dominion, Mr Murdoch told Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott on 6 November 2020 that it would be “very hard to credibly cry foul everywhere” with Mr Trump’s losses in several swing states.

He also wrote “if Trump becomes a sore loser we should watch Sean [Hannity] especially and others don’t sound the same.”

That message was forwarded to Meade Cooper, the executive vice president of the network’s primetime programming, which includes programmes hosted by Mr Hannity, Mr Carlson and Ms Piro, among others.

Ms Cooper testified that, as of 6 November 2020, “going on television to say that the election is being stolen … would not be based in fact at that point.”

But that same day, Sidney Powell, who was instrumental in advancing Mr Trump’s spurious legal battle to overturn election results, appeared on Lou Dobbs Tonight to float a version of a bogus election manipulation conspiracy theory.

Her appearance prompted Fox News host Bret Baier to immediately ask Fox President Jay Wallace: “What is this? Oh man.”

The following day, network executives were made aware that 4chan users were calling on users to “spread” baseless election fraud claims and conspiracy theories. That same day, an editorial in Mr Murdoch’s The New York Post called on Mr Trump to “stop the ‘stolen election’ rhetoric” and get “Rudy Giuliani off TV”.

Ms Powell was invited back to Fox News that same week, appearing on Maria Bartiromo’s Sunday Morning Futures on 8 November, 2020,

“I know there were voting irregularities. Tell me about that,” Ms Bartiromo said on the network.

Ms Powell falsely said Dominion used “algorithms” as part of a “massive and coordinated effort to steal” the 2020 presidential election from Mr Trump.

Ms Bartiromo did not tell her viewers the source of those claims, which Ms Powell shared with her in an email one day earlier that even she said came from a person she described as a “wackadoodle”.

“Who am I? And how do I know all of this? … I’ve had the strangest dreams since I was a little girl … I was internally decapitated, and yet, I live. … The Wind tells me I’m a ghost, but I don’t believe it.”

That email, which was also shared with Mr Dobbs, alleged that Dominion was the “one common thread” in specious claims about “voting irregularities”.

In her deposition in the Dominion lawsuit, Ms Bartiromo agreed that the email was “nonsense”.

A filing from lawyers for Fox News this month claimed that a “reasonable viewer” would have understood that the network’s hosts “were not espousing the president’s allegations themselves, but were providing a forum for the principal architects of those legal challenges.” Those challenges were defeated, dismissed and roundly rejected in court and by election officials from both parties.

Members of Mr Trump’s legal team, including Ms Powell, Rudy Giuliani and John Eastman, have faced disciplinary and ethics charges in the wake of their failed efforts to overturn voting results from millions of Americans who participated in 2020 elections.

Fox attorneys have claimed that their on-air discussions were protected under the First Amendment and do not meet grounds for defamation. The “actual malice” bar for defamation in this case must show that the defendants acted with the knowledge that what they said was false or was treated with a reckless disregard for whether it was false or not.

“Dominion’s lawsuit has always been more about what will generate headlines than what can withstand legal and factual scrutiny, as illustrated by them now being forced to slash their fanciful damages demand by more than half a billion dollars after their own expert debunked its implausible claims,” a statement from Fox News to The Independent said.

“Their summary judgment motion took an extreme, unsupported view of defamation law that would prevent journalists from basic reporting and their efforts to publicly smear FOX for covering and commenting on allegations by a sitting President of the United States should be recognized for what it is: a blatant violation of the First Amendment,” according to the statement.

This story was first published on 27 February and has been updated with developments and comment

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