Murdoch has survived scandal after scandal. Will Dominion-Fox News lawsuit be different?
For the record:
9:09 a.m. March 4, 2023: An earlier version of this article said the Jan. 6, 2021, rampage at the U.S. Capitol left seven people dead. The attack left five people dead. Some Congress members have cited additional deaths of officers who died by suicide after the attack.
Rupert Murdoch's admission was startling.
During a January deposition, the media mogul acknowledged that he knew former President Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election were false, but he did not intervene to stop Fox News hosts and conspiracy-spinning guests from giving the assertions oxygen — even after the Jan. 6, 2021, rampage on the U.S. Capitol, which left five people dead.
Court testimony and internal emails — which have become evidence in a $1.6-billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News by software and voting machine supplier Dominion Voting Systems — exposed a campaign by Murdoch, his son Lachlan and other key Fox News figures to keep Trump-loving viewers and advertisers in the fold. The network and its stars, including Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, were spooked by dipping ratings after the election and feared their audience might switch to other right-wing networks.
Murdoch, during his deposition, expressed some regret about his network's handling of the stolen-election narrative.
"I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it, in hindsight,” Murdoch said in his deposition.
The revelations have shined a harsh light on the actions of the Australian-born media baron, who turns 92 this month, and affirmed what his lieutenants have long said: Although the Fox News co-founder is a libertarian-leaning conservative, he is less motivated by ideology than by amassing money and power.
It's not the first time a Murdoch media outlet, or some of his underlings, have been accused of unethical conduct in pursuit of higher ratings or newspaper sales. The Fox News crisis poses the biggest threat to his company since the British phone-hacking scandal destroyed one of his London tabloids 12 years ago.
"In this particular [Fox News] instance, we have one of the worst offenses you could commit in journalism, which is broadcasting something that you know is completely false," said Gabriel Kahn, a USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism professor and a former Wall Street Journal reporter. "We're talking about supporting a bogus theory — a theory they knew was bogus — which was part of a strategy to overturn a legitimate election."
Fox maintains that its coverage of unfounded theories about voter fraud was protected by the 1st Amendment. The company has said the issue was newsworthy because of long-standing concerns about the reliability of digital vote tabulation devices, and because the fraud claims were made by a sitting president.
Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, through a spokesman, declined The Times' interview requests.
“Criticism by competitors, individuals and organizations with partisan agendas is part of being No. 1 in the news business," a Fox News spokesperson said. "We remain focused on the core values of our business — free press, free speech and free expression — which reflects our unwavering commitment to the people’s right to know, to be informed and to participate in the marketplace of ideas.”
During his deposition on the Fox studio lot in West Los Angeles, the elder Murdoch, who is chairman of Fox Corp., sought to draw a distinction between the network's news programs, which offered a more critical take, and its opinion hosts, including Carlson, Hannity and Maria Bartiromo, who have more leeway.
But critics contend Fox News paved the way for its current crisis by providing a platform for previous conspiracies — including Trump's unfounded assertions more than a decade ago that President Obama wasn't born in the U.S., or erroneously blaming Seth Rich, a young Democratic National Committee assistant who was fatally shot in Washington in 2016, for the leak of Hillary Clinton's emails.
During Fox's nightly news show, "Special Report With Bret Baier," a guest said questions lingered over "whether Seth Rich was assassinated by Hillary Clinton," according to a lawsuit filed by the Rich family. Fox settled the case in 2020.
Fox News also has dealt with other scandals involving its workplace culture, including the 2016 ouster of powerful Chairman Roger Ailes and popular prime-time host Bill O'Reilly, a year later, over sexual harassment claims.
Currently, two former 21st Century Fox executives are on trial in Brooklyn, N.Y., accused of paying millions of dollars in bribes to soccer officials to land soccer tournament rights, including the World Cup, for Fox. The executives have denied the charges, and Fox Corp. said the executives were not involved in the World Cup bidding process and that Fox had the strongest bid.
The latest predicament at Fox News comes more than a decade after Britain was rocked by revelations that Murdoch's News of the World tabloid had illegally tapped into voicemail messages of crime victims, politicians and celebrities — including actor Hugh Grant, soccer star David Beckham and royal family members, including Princes William and Harry — in search of salacious stories.
Reporters also paid bribes to police officers in exchange for news tips. A British army intelligence officer's computer and emails were hacked, allegedly to find information about Northern Ireland political informants.
The phone hacking scandal sparked a firestorm in Britain over media ethics and forced the Murdochs to shut down the News of the World, lay off about 200 people and abandon a bid for control of a popular satellite TV service, Sky. Murdoch and his son James were called in front of a Parliament committee in 2011, where they said they had been unaware of the crimes being committed in the bowels of their organization.
Murdoch called the historic reckoning before Parliament "the most humble day of my life."
A nearly yearlong judicial inquiry concluded with the British press being chided for its occasional use of deceptive and covert means.
"There has been a recklessness in prioritizing sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected," Sir Brian Leveson, who led the inquiry, said in 2012.
The company has since settled more than 1,000 claims brought by alleged victims. Over the years, legal fees, expenses and payouts to phone hacking victims have cost the company hundreds of millions of dollars, according to regulatory filings.
"Why were journalists behaving in this way? Well, it comes from the top," said British journalist Nick Davies, who exposed the phone hacking scandal while reporting for the Guardian.
"Rupert Murdoch wants to make more money, and he passes this culture down through the different levels of the hierarchy: from corporate executives, down to the editors ... and onto the reporters," said Davies, author of "Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up With Rupert Murdoch."
"It's all about a ruthless pursuit of the story in order to generate readers or ratings in order to generate money," Davies said.
'Bit of a political junkie and a news junkie'
The grandson of a Scottish Presbyterian minister and son of a respected Australian newspaper editor and war hero, Murdoch was thrust into publishing in his early 20s after his father died, leaving him the Adelaide News. From that single newspaper, he spent the next 65 years building what would become a global media colossus once valued at more than $100 billion.
Murdoch began unwinding properties with the 2019 sale of much of his Hollywood operation, including the 20th Century Fox film and TV studios, to Walt Disney Co. Murdoch folded his remaining TV assets, including Fox News, into Fox Corp. His publishing assets, including the Wall Street Journal, are housed in a separate entity that he controls, News Corp.
“I admit I am a bit of a political junkie and a news junkie,” Murdoch told Dominion's lawyers during his deposition.
Over the years, he has shrewdly employed a populist formula to win readers in Australia, then Britain, and later, the U.S. His publications are high-brow and low-brow. News Corp. owns the respectable Wall Street Journal and the gritty New York Post.
In Britain, News Corp. owns the venerable Times of London and splashy Sun, which late last year was forced to apologize to Prince Harry's wife, Meghan Markle, after one of the tabloid's columnists wrote he “dreams of the day when [Markle] is made to parade naked through the streets of every town in Britain while the crowds chant ‘Shame!’ and throw lumps of excrement at her.”
"There has been an increasingly bullying nature to British culture. I don't want to say it started with Murdoch, but it has certainly grown under Murdoch," Kahn said. "It's been a winning business strategy for him."
Murdoch has never been shy about using his media outlets as a political sword.
As revealed in the Fox News defamation case, Murdoch in 2020 gave Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner an advanced look at then-candidate Joe Biden's TV commercials. On Friday, the progressive nonprofit group Media Matters filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission, alleging Murdoch's sharing of confidential information was tantamount to making "an illegal corporate contribution" to the Trump campaign.
Emails also show Murdoch instructed his underlings to ease up on Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). "Could Sean [Hannity] say something supportive?" Murdoch wrote. "We cannot lose the Senate if at all possible."
Years ago, his publications championed Britain's conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher but switched sides to back the Labor Party's Tony Blair. His outlets occasionally have split on its causes. In contrast to the Times of London, the Sun was a boisterous cheerleader for Britain's withdrawal from the European Union, Brexit, claiming: "We must set ourselves free from dictatorial Brussels."
"We have the Murdoch titles to thank for the fact that we're no longer in the European Union," Davies said. "It's about poisoning the mainstream of public debate with falsehood and distortion. It may be to sell newspapers, it may be to attack a rival and sometimes it's a random election."
On the night of the 2020 election, Fox News' decision desk made an early (and accurate) call that key swing state Arizona had tipped to Biden. That infuriated Trump and legions of his supporters.
The network immediately felt a viewer backlash.
"I've never seen a reaction like this, to any media company. Kills me to watch it," Carlson told Fox News Chief Suzanne Scott.
The weekend after the election, Bartiromo invited onto her show lawyer Sidney Powell, who spouted untrue allegations such as Dominion systems were "flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist." Trump surrogates also falsely suggested Dominion's software was developed by a Venezuelan company with ties to strongman Hugo Chavez to help him tilt elections.
That night, Carlson fumed in an email that the "software s— is absurd. … Half our viewers have seen the Maria clip," according to court filings.
That same day, Nov. 8, 2020, Murdoch sent a message to Scott, saying Fox was "getting creamed by CNN !"
A synopsis of CNN's coverage, sent to Scott, showed the rival network was teeing off on Fox News, charging it was "aiming to destabilize the American system by telling viewers the election was stolen by deep state Democrats," according to Dominion's court filings.
Scott then had "a long talk" with Murdoch and Lachlan, Fox Corp.'s chief executive, the Dominion motion said. They allegedly discussed ways to cover the news without alienating Trump fans.
"Viewers going through the 5 stages of grief," Scott wrote the next day in an email to Lachlan Murdoch. "It’s a question of trust — the AZ [call] was damaging but we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.”
Lachlan Murdoch responded: “Yes. But needs constant rebuilding without any missteps,” according to Dominion's brief. Lachlan Murdoch testified that a drop in Fox News ratings would “keep me awake” at night, according to a Dominion court filing.
"That's been the dynamic that's caused this trouble," Davies, the British journalist, said. "Fox for commercial reasons, not for political reasons, supported the Trump lies in order to keep the viewers happy, so that they can keep the revenue coming in."
During his deposition, Rupert Murdoch insisted the network's coverage was warranted.
"We report the news. ... And this was big news. The President of the United States was making wild claims, but that is news," Murdoch said.
Fox said in a statement that Dominion's motions take "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 Dominion documents show that, a month after the election, Fox's board members began objecting to the stolen-election drumbeat.
"We are entering a truly bizarre phase of this where [Trump] has actually convinced himself of this farce and will do more bizarre things to delegitimize the election," former House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican who serves on Fox Corp.'s board, wrote in a Dec. 6, 2020, text message to the Murdochs.
"I see this as a key inflection point for Fox, where the right thing and the smart business thing to do line up nicely,” Ryan wrote.
The claims continued.
On the eve of the Capitol assault, Rupert Murdoch suggested to Scott that Fox News' prime-time hosts — Hannity, Carlson and Laura Ingraham — could announce "something like ‘the election is over and Joe Biden won,' " Murdoch reportedly said, noting that "would go a long way to stop the Trump myth" that the election was stolen.
Scott, according to Dominion, told one of her lieutenants: "I told Rupert that privately they are all there — we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers but they know how to navigate."
In his testimony, Ryan agreed 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 believe were credible sources."
Opinion polls have consistently shown a majority of Republicans doubt Biden legitimately won.
After the Capitol riots, Fox board member Anne Dias prodded the Murdochs for more.
"Considering how important Fox News has been as a megaphone for Donald Trump, directly or indirectly, I believe the time has come for Fox News or for you, Lachlan, to take a stance," Dias wrote, according to the Dominion documents. "It is an existential moment for the nation and for Fox News as a brand."
Lachlan Murdoch then shared the email with his father.
"Just tell her we have been talking internally and intensely along these lines, and Fox News, which called the election correctly, is pivoting as fast as possible," Rupert Murdoch replied. "We have to lead our viewers, which is not as easy as it might seem.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.