Rupert Murdoch admits he knew Fox News hosts endorsed false election fraud claims, deposition shows
New court documents show that Rupert Murdoch and his top lieutenants at Fox News were aware that former President Trump's claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election were false, but agreed to give them continued coverage in an effort to keep unhappy viewers from fleeing.
The stunning revelations based on deposition testimony were in a brief filed Monday in a Delaware state court by Dominion Voting Systems, the latest salvo in the company's $1.6-billion defamation suit against the conservative news network.
The testimony by Murdoch and others at the company will add powerful evidence to what many 1st Amendment attorneys have said is among the strongest cases they have seen against a media organization. Dominion needs to prove that Fox News was reckless in knowingly spreading false information to show that the network acted with malice.
Fox News has maintained that its coverage and commentary of Trump's false allegations were newsworthy and therefore protected under the 1st Amendment.
In his depositions, Murdoch acknowledged that he had the power to keep Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell from appearing on Fox News, where they spread misinformation about election fraud and falsely accused Dominion of using its machines to manipulate votes. But he chose not to exercise that power, even though behind the scenes he and others were aware that Trump's legal team was spreading lies and even questioned their sanity, according to the deposition.
When asked as to whether he could have said to Fox News Media Chief Executive Suzanne Scott and the network's hosts, "stop putting Rudy Giuliani on the air,” Murdoch replied, "I could have. But I didn't."
Murdoch acknowledged that he was mindful of antagonizing Trump-supporting Fox News viewers who were angry over the result of the election. Fox News was the first network on election night to call Arizona for Joe Biden.
Trump “had a very large following, and they were probably mostly viewers of Fox, so it would have been stupid,” Murdoch said in his testimony.
The filing also reveals that Fox Corp. board member Paul Ryan warned the Murdochs “that Fox News should not be spreading conspiracy theories,” according to testimony from the former Republican speaker of the House.
“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 de-legitimize the election," Ryan told 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.”
In a statement, Fox News said Dominion is taking "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 1st Amendment.”
The filing provides an extraordinary glimpse into the operations of Fox News, where network executives intensely debated how to debunk Trump's false claims without agitating viewers, some of whom were flocking to upstart conservative network Newsmax, which was far more sympathetic to the falsehoods. Murdoch's son Lachlan, Fox Corp.'s chief executive, testified that he would lie awake at night worrying about Fox News ratings.
On Jan. 5, Murdoch and Scott discussed whether hosts Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham should say some version of “The election is over and Joe Biden won.” Murdoch said he believed those words “would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election was stolen.”
Scott told Murdoch that “privately they are all there,” but “we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers.”
No statement was made that night, and the next day, Jan. 6, Trump-supporting rioters stormed the Capitol in an attempt to stop the electoral vote count.
Dominion filed a motion for summary judgment on Feb. 16 that outlined how Fox News anchors and executives privately dismissed the claims of voter fraud and found no evidence to support them, but continued to give a platform on their programs to Trump lawyers and surrogates who presented wildly false allegations.
Fox News anchors and executives privately described Powell and Giuliani as “nuts” and “crazy,” even as they continued to give them airtime. They even criticized their own anchors, including Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro, who they believed were influenced by Trump advocates touting conspiracy theories. Those included unfounded claims that Dominion was a key player in a rigged election by manipulating vote counts and suggestions that it was owned and controlled by the Venezuelan government.
As the case moves forward, the inner workings at Fox News are being exposed through texts, emails and deposition testimony, presenting a picture of an operation panicked over how Trump supporters in its audience would abandon the network.
A hearing on the motions is scheduled for March 21. If the case goes to trial, it would begin in mid-April.
Fox News filed a brief Monday in opposition to Dominion that cited deposition testimony by Murdoch that he is not directly involved in making editorial decisions on the network and that Scott was responsible.
"I appointed Ms. Scott to the job ... and I delegate everything to her,” Murdoch testified.
The brief also said that just because a number of executives and anchors disbelieved Trump's fraud claims does not mean it was defamatory to report on them.
"Dominion cannot establish actual malice by relying upon skepticism of persons at Fox News who were not responsible for the allegedly defamatory statements," the brief said. "It is hardly unusual that some people in a newsroom (with the diverse political viewpoints one would expect) will disbelieve the allegations and hope that they ultimately prove false, while others will keep an open mind in hopes that they prove true."
In a statement, Dominion said the company "is a strong believer in the 1st Amendment and its protections. As long-settled law makes clear, the 1st Amendment does not shield broadcasters that knowingly or recklessly spread lies.”
Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.