Fox News, Rupert Murdoch and backstage Trump whispers: The damning Dominion revelations

Court documents present damning messages from network’s star anchors and executives surrounding coverage of Donald Trump’s false 2020 election fraud narrative, Joe Sommerlad and Alex Woodward explain

Thursday 09 March 2023 11:57 GMT

The right-wing media giant Fox News is facing a $1.6bn defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems, a Denver-based manufacturer of voting machines, over the network’s coverage of the 2020 presidential election and Donald Trump’s bogus claims that the contest was “rigged”.

In a 192-page court filing published on 16 February containing private messages from many of the network’s biggest stars, Dominion argues: “From the top down, Fox knew ‘the Dominion stuff’ was ‘total bs’.”

“Yet despite knowing the truth – or at minimum, recklessly disregarding that truth – Fox spread and endorsed these ‘outlandish voter fraud claims’ about Dominion even as it internally recognised the lies as ‘crazy’, ‘absurd’ and ‘shockingly reckless’,” the filing said.

Attorneys for Fox, however, have argued that Dominion has mischaracterised the record and “the facts by cherry-picking soundbites” and “omitting key context”, and has accused the company of seeking a “staggering” figure in damages aimed at winning headlines, silencing protected speech and enriching its owner, Staple Street Capital Partners, and its investors.

“Dominion brought this lawsuit to punish the Fox News Network for reporting on one of the biggest stories of the day – allegations by the sitting president of the United States and his surrogates that the 2020 election was affected by fraud,” the company stated in a counterclaim.

“The very fact of those allegations was newsworthy.”

Fox attorneys argue that when voting technology companies denied the allegations made by Mr Trump and his surrogates, Fox News aired those denials, while some of its hosts offered protected opinion commentary about the allegations.

Fox has asserted that the “core” of the case is freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the constitution and protected by New York Times v Sullivan.”

A five-week trial is scheduled to begin on 17 April.

Despite the network’s top officials and presenters 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.

Here is a brief overview of some of the claims in several bombshell court documents, which collect sworn depositions and internal messages from prominent Fox News personalities like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and owner Rupert Murdoch discussing coverage of the 2020 election’s aftermath.

Tucker Carlson ‘passionately’ hated Trump

Days before the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January, 2021, Mr Tucker Carlson texted with an unknown Fox employee to say that he “can’t wait” to stop covering the soon-to-be former president.

“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” he wrote on 4 January, according to court documents. “I truly can’t wait.”

He added: “I hate him passionately.”

“We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest,” he said. “But come on. There really isn’t an upside to Trump.”

Murdoch admits top Fox personalities ‘endorsed’ false election claims

The chair of the conservative media empire said that hosts including Mr Hannity, Maria Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs 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 in a sworn deposition, according to court documents.

In sworn questioning by lawyers for Dominion, Mr Murdoch was asked whether he believes “that the 2020 presidential election was free and fair.”

“Yes,” he replied. “The election was not stolen.”

In a 19 November 2020 email to an associate, Mr Murdoch wrote that Mr Trump’s “stupid and damaging” fraud claims made him “increasingly mad” and a “danger” as president.

“Apparently not sleeping and bouncing off walls! Don’t know about Melania, but kids no help,” Mr Murdoch wrote.

Murdoch provided Jared Kushner with information about Biden campaign

The veteran mogul allegedly provided Mr Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, with “confidential information about Biden’s ads, along with debate strategy (providing Mr Kushner a preview of Mr Biden’s ads before they were public),” according to a filing from Dominion.

Mr Murdoch, questioned under oath, initially denied providing a preview an ad until he was shown an email in which he told Mr Kushner that he “will send it,” according to deposition exceprts.

“Do you think it is appropriate for someone in your position to give a heads up to the opposing campaign about what the ad of the opposing campaign will show before it is public?” Dominion lawyer Justin Nelson, said during the deposition.

“I was trying to help Mr Kushner,” Mr Murdoch said. “He’s a friend of mine.”

Anchors were livid over (correct) decision to call Arizona for Biden

Fox’s high-profile anchors privately bemoaned the network’s biggest election night call, according to the filing, with Mr Hannity complaining in a text on 12 November 2020: “In one week and one debate they destroyed a brand that took 25 years to build and the damage is incalculable.”

He later allegedly told Fox and Friends host Steve Doocy: “You don’t p*** off the base.”

Mr Carlson told him, “I’ve heard from angry viewers every hour of the day all weekend, including at dinner tonight”, to which Mr Hannity responded: “Same same same. Never before has this ever happened.”

On election night, Mr Kushner called Mr Murdoch saying, “This is terrible,” according to a filing from Dominion.

“And I could hear Trump’s voice in the background shouting,” according to Mr Murdoch, quoted in the filing.

“And I said, ‘Well, the numbers are the numbers,’” the filing stated.

Mr Murdoch and Fox leadership met days after Election Day over concerns of “mounting viewer backlash to Fox” after the network correctly predicted that Mr Biden won Arizona, but the network agreed to air “wild claims” that the election was stolen from Mr Trump while “positive impressions of Fox News” among its viewers “dropped precipitously after Election Day to the lowest levels” the network had seen.

At 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 court documents.

Carlson asked for network’s White House correspondent to be fired

In a message purportedly sent to a group chat including Ms Ingraham and Mr Hannity on 12 November, Mr Carlson pointed out a tweet from the network’s White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich in which she fact-checked a post by Mr Trump alleging voter fraud, pointing out that “top election infrastructure officials” had declared: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes or was in any way compromised.”

Mr Carlson reacted by saying: “Please get her fired. Seriously… What the f***? I’m actually shocked… It needs to stop tonight immediately, like tonight. It’s immeasurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Murdoch considered having stars appear together to declare Biden the winner

The tycoon reportedly considered asking Mr Hannity, Mr Carlson and Ms Ingraham to give a joint prime-time address together in which they publicly declared that Mr Biden had won the White House legitimately and that fraud had played no part in the outcome.

Doing so “would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election stolen,” he told CEO Suzanne Scott on 5 January 2021, according to a filing from Dominion.

Carlson called Trump a ‘demonic force’

In an anxious text to his producer Alex Pfeiffer about the dangers of displeasing Mr Trump over its coverage of the Capitol riot on 6 January, Mr Carlson describes him as “a demonic force, a destroyer”, adding: “But he’s not going to destroy us.”

“What he’s good at is destroying things,” he wrote, according to court filings. “He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”

Murdoch tells Fox CEO to ‘help any way we can’ in Georgia

The mogul emailed Ms Scott on 16 November with a link to an article in The Wall Street Journal about Fox’s rival network Newsmax.

“These people should be watched, if sceptically,” he told her, before advising her to devote coverage to the Georgia Senate runoff and the promotion of GOP candidates Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, both of whom would ultimately lose to Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

Mr Murdoch continued: “Trump will concede eventually and we should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can. We don’t want to antagonise Trump further, but [Rudy] Giuliani taken with a large grain of salt. Everything at stake here.”

Fox Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch (AP)

Senior figures embarrassed by Giuliani’s antics

It was not just Mr Murdoch who had doubts about former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to push the election fraud narrative.

A filing from Dominion collects messages from other Fox stars concerned about his appearances, with Mr Hannity observing on 11 November: “Rudy is acting like an insane person.”

Ms Ingraham said on 12 December that he was “such an idiot” and Lou Dobbs’s producer, John Fawcett, said on 3 January that the veteran politician was “so full of s***”.

Trump lawyer forwarded ‘wackadoodle’ election conspiracy tip

Sidney Powell, one of the most prominent attorneys who advanced Mr Trump’s spurious legal efforts to overturn the election results, reportedly forwarded an email she had received from an anonymous tipster to Ms Bartiromo in which she herself admitted was “pretty wackadoodle”, alleging that Dominion’s machines were the “one common thread” tying together “voting irregularities in a number of states”.

That sender also apparently believed that the late US Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia had been “purposefully killed at the annual Bohemian Grove camp… during a weeklong human hunting expedition” and wrote: “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.”

Elsewhere, Mr Carlson accused Ms Powell of lying and called her a “f***ing b****”. Ms Ingraham said of her: “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto Rudy.”

Sidney Powell during a press call in Georgia, December 2020 (Reuters)

Jeanine Pirro considered ‘crazy’ by colleagues

Ms Pirro’s producers stated on 7 November that they believed she was “angling for a job somewhere else”, fearing her exchanges with guests over whether or not the election was stolen would not be productive, according to court documents.

“They took her off cuz she was being crazy,” texted producer Justin Wells. “Optics are bad. But she is crazy.”

Fox sent Mike Lindell a gift

MyPillow founder and prominent election fraud conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell quickly emerged as one of the most passionate proponents of the false narrative that the election was stolen from Mr Trump as he made appearances on rival right-wing media networks. Fox News appeared to grow anxious when Mr Lindell criticised the network during an interview with Newsmax.

Ms Scott duly sent him a gift with a handwritten note, hoping to win him over, documents allege.

This story was first published on 17 February and has been updated with developments and comment

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