Fox News executive chair Rupert Murdoch admitted in a deposition that some Fox News hosts endorsed President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election, potentially undermining the network’s assertion that it was neutrally relaying dubious arguments from Trump and his allies, a court filing released Monday said.
The admission from Murdoch came in a libel suit voting equipment maker that Dominion Voting Systems is pressing against the TV network over its coverage of the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election.
However, the ongoing lawsuit is also opening a unique window into Fox’s internal deliberations, particularly in the tense period after Election Day, as the network struggled to hang on to a viewer base heavily invested in Trump’s claims of victory even as senior Fox officials were privately convinced Trump’s claims were bogus and he had lost.
Dominion’s court filing released Monday, a response to Fox’s own recent submission in the case, portrays senior executives at the network as widely in agreement that their network shouldn’t help Trump spread the false narrative. Yet, they repeatedly wrestled with how firmly to disavow it without risking their Trump-friendly audience.
“Some of our commentators were endorsing it,” Murdoch conceded during his sworn deposition, appearing to insist that Fox hosts did not speak for the network. “Yes. They endorsed,” he said.
“It is fair to say you seriously doubted any claim of massive election fraud?” a Dominion lawyer asked the broadcasting mogul.
“Oh, yes,” Murdoch replied.
“And you seriously doubted it from the very beginning?” the attorney asked.
“Yes. I mean, we thought everything was on the up-and-up,” Murdoch said.
But as time passed, the network agreed to air Trump’s claims because of their inherent newsworthiness, executives said, while suggesting their hosts would challenge or push back on the false claims. Dominion said that pushback was tepid at best and drowned out by louder and larger embraces of Trump’s claims.
The filing also underscored the extraordinary linkages between Trump’s White House, his campaign and the network, whose top executives and programmers were regularly in contact about editorial decisions and issues related to political strategy. A series of episodes detailed in the submission suggest not only that the network and its leaders were actively aiding Trump’s re-election bid, but that Trump sometimes took direction from Fox.
Murdoch, according to Dominion’s filing, said in his deposition that he “provided Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, with Fox’s confidential information about Biden’s ads, along with debate strategy.
According to the filing, Trump’s decision to drop controversial lawyer Sidney Powell from his legal team was driven by criticism from Fox.
“Fox was instrumental in maneuvering Powell both into the Trump campaign and then out of it,” Dominion’s lawyers wrote.
However, Dominion notes that Fox shows continued to have Powell on as a guest even after Trump disavowed her. The voting machine maker says that her continued presence undermines Fox’s claim in the litigation that it was just relaying newsworthy statements by Trump attorneys and advisers about their thoroughly unsuccessful efforts to challenge the 2020 election results.
In the immediate aftermath of the election, Murdoch emailed with other Fox executives to underscore this point, specifically worrying that some of the network’s primetime hosts might fail to get the desired message: that the vote was not tainted with fraud.
In a statement Monday, a Fox spokesperson said much of the evidence Dominion cited wasn’t relevant to the legal issues in the case.
“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,” the Fox statement said.
“Dominion’s lawsuit has always been more about what will generate headlines than what can withstand legal and factual scrutiny,” the statement also declared.
According to the evidence described by Dominion, Murdoch called Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell right after the election and urged him to tell other Republican leaders not to embrace Trump’s false fraud claims. Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, a member of Fox’s corporate board, repeatedly pressed internally to steer the network away from “conspiracy theories.” After Jan. 6, Ryan pressed his view even more forcefully inside Fox.
“Ryan believed that some high percentage of Americans thought the election was stolen because they got a diet of information telling them the election was stolen from what they believed were credible sources,” Dominion’s brief says. “Rupert responded to Ryan’s email: ‘Thanks Paul. Wake-up call for Hannity, who has been privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers.’”
But time and again, the executives were confronted with evidence that the network was experiencing a backlash from viewers who felt Fox wasn’t sufficiently supportive of Trump’s claims, a potential threat to the network’s viewer base.
Dominion’s lawyers argue that Fox officials soft-pedaled their efforts to rein in such statements by their own hosts because Fox leaders remained acutely concerned that their viewers would migrate to platforms that were enthusiastically trumpeting Trump’s claims, like Newsmax and One America News (OAN).
Fox has sought to assert a “neutral reportage” privilege to argue that it should not be held liable for the accuracy of statements that it attributed to others, like Trump and his attorneys. Dominion says Fox’s hosts failed to challenge those assertions even when Fox officials knew or strongly suspected they were untrue.
However, Fox’s lawyers argue that the fact that someone at the network regarded particular claims as untrue does not establish that the people uttering them on air knew that. Fox’s defense also appears to contend that the views of corporate level executives — including Murdoch — about the election fraud issues aren’t relevant to Fox’s liability for allegedly defaming Dominion
“Dominion barely tries to demonstrate that the specific person(s) at Fox News responsible for any of the statements it challenges subjectively knew or harbored serious doubts about the truth of that statement when it was published,” Fox’s attorneys wrote in their own lengthy court filing. “Instead, it lards up its brief with any cherry-picked statement it can muster from any corner of Fox News to try to demonstrate that ‘Fox’ writ large — not the specific persons at Fox News responsible for any given statement — ’knew’ that the allegations against Dominion were false.”
While the case is pending in a state court in Delaware, a judge said in a preliminary ruling last year that New York law appeared to apply and that state did not recognize the neutral reportage privilege, only a similar protection for statements that are actually uttered in official government proceedings.
The court filings released Monday contained only excerpts of the statements from various depositions, so the full context of all the statements was not always apparent.