News Corp. Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch declined to rein in Fox News hosts who spread false claims of widespread voter fraud in the days after the 2020 election despite privately expressing that he had seen little evidence for then-President Donald Trump’s claims and that he found half of them “bulls--- and damaging,” according to court documents unsealed Monday.
Fox News was “trying to straddle the line between spewing conspiracy theories on one hand, yet calling out the fact that they are actually false on the other,” Murdoch said in testimony released in the court documents.
Murdoch acknowledged in testimony that some of those hosts, including Sean Hannity, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, had done more than just give a platform to baseless claims of voter fraud.
“Yes,” Murdoch said, according to the documents. “They endorsed.”
The filing adds to a growing collection of documents and testimony, some of it from many other top Fox News and Fox Corp. executives, that detail how the cable channel reacted in the hours, days and weeks after the 2020 election — and how those reactions opened the door for baseless claims of election fraud to become a consistent talking point.
The testimony from executives highlights how Fox News' calling Arizona for Joe Biden late on election night sparked a viewer backlash that resonated among the company’s executives and high-profile hosts, sparking concerns about what it would mean for its business.
Murdoch, asked why he continued to allow MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell to make election fraud claims on Fox News, said it was a business decision. Murdoch agreed that “it is not red or blue, it is green,” according to the court documents.
Murdoch testified in an ongoing lawsuit against Fox News filed by the voting machine maker Dominion Voting Systems. The new documents were unsealed less than two weeks after an unsealed court filing exposed the communications of many Fox News executives, hosts and producers who saw claims about Dominion to be without merit. They included host Tucker Carlson's saying Sidney Powell was “lying” about voter fraud docs, Rupert Murdoch's calling statements by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani “crazy stuff” and “damaging” and Hannity’s saying he “did not believe it for one second.”
Murdoch also confirmed that he could have exerted some control over the network, most notably by telling Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott to stop putting Giuliani on the air.
“I could have,” Murdoch said in the court documents. “But I didn’t.”
Dominion first sued Fox News in March 2021, seeking $1.6 billion for what it alleged were lies that “deeply damaged Dominion’s once-thriving business.”
Fox News has defended its coverage and called the lawsuit “baseless.”
On Monday, the company said in a statement: “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. 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.”
Dominion noted in the court documents that it tried to get Fox News shows hosted by Dobbs, Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro to book its spokesperson, Michael Steel, to counter election fraud claims but that its efforts were unsuccessful. A search of the Fox News website shows Steel did appear on at least one Fox News program: "America's News Headquarters."
The documents also show other executives at Fox News growing increasingly concerned about the channel’s handling of election fraud claims in the days after the election.
“Hannity is getting awfully close to the line with his commentary and guests tonight,” Viet Dinh, Fox Corp.’s chief legal and policy officer, told Fox News and Fox Corp. executives on Nov. 5, 2020.
The filing also offered new insight into the relationship between Murdoch and Trump's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, asserting that Murdoch provided Kushner with "Fox confidential information" about Joe Biden's ads, as well as debate strategy. However, Murdoch did not help him on election night.
When Fox News determined that Biden had won Arizona, Murdoch testified, Kushner called him to protest.
“My friend Jared Kushner called me saying, ‘This is terrible,’ and I could hear Trump’s voice in the background shouting," Murdoch testified, according to the filing. “And I said, ‘Well, the numbers are the numbers.’”
Lawsuits like Dominion's rarely succeed, as the First Amendment broadly protects publishers. Plaintiffs must also prove “actual malice,” a term that means statements were made with knowledge that they were false or were made with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not.
Jeff Kosseff, a law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and former practicing First Amendment lawyer, said in an interview that Murdoch’s testimony suggests Dominion has “a really strong case.”
“I can’t recall the last time that I’ve seen so much evidence of actual malice just piled on top of each other,” Kosseff said.
“That’s not to say they definitely will win, but I’d much rather be in the plaintiff's lawyers' shoes,” he said.
The filing shows that as various Fox News shows, hosts and guests continued to push voter fraud claims, Murdoch fielded messages from other media executives, some from within Fox Corp., who tried to persuade him to change course.
Murdoch even spoke to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott on Jan. 5, 2021, the day before Trump supporters would storm the Capitol, about whether to push Hannity, Carlson and Laura Ingraham to say something to effect of "The election is over and Joe Biden won," according to the filing.
According to the filing, Scott told Murdoch that “privately they [the hosts] are all there” but “we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers.”
No statement was made.