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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Murdoch Acknowledges Fox News Hosts Endorsed Election Fraud Falsehoods - The New York Times

Murdoch Acknowledges Fox News Hosts Endorsed Election Fraud Falsehoods

"Rupert Murdoch, the conservative media mogul, spoke under oath last month in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems.

Rupert Murdoch in a suit and tie, standing at a microphone and in front of two American flags.
“I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight,” Rupert Murdoch said of the election fraud narrative.Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the conservative media empire that owns Fox News, acknowledged in a deposition that several hosts for his networks promoted the false narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald J. Trump, and that he could have stopped them but didn’t, court documentsreleased on Monday showed.

“They endorsed,” Mr. Murdoch said under oath in response to direct questions about the Fox hosts Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, according to a legal filing by Dominion Voting Systems. “I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight,” he added, while also disclosing that he was always dubious of Mr. Trump’s claims of widespread voter fraud.

Asked whether he doubted Mr. Trump, Mr. Murdoch responded: “Yes. I mean, we thought everything was on the up-and-up.” At the same time, he rejected the accusation that Fox News as a whole had endorsed the stolen election narrative. “Not Fox,” he said. “No. Not Fox.”

Mr. Murdoch’s remarks, which he made last month as part of Dominion’s $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox, added to the evidence that Dominion has accumulated as it tries to prove its central allegation: The people running the country’s most popular news network knew Mr. Trump’s claims of voter fraud in the 2020 election were false but broadcast them anyway in a reckless pursuit of ratings and profit.

Proof to that effect would help Dominion clear the high legal bar set by the Supreme Court for defamation cases. To prevail, Dominion must show not only that Fox broadcast false information, but that it did so knowingly. A judge in Delaware state court has scheduled a monthlong trial beginning in April.

The new documents and a similar batch released this month provide a dramatic account from inside the network, depicting a frantic scramble as Fox tried to woo back its large conservative audience after ratings collapsed in the wake of Mr. Trump’s loss. Fox had been the first network to call Arizona for Joseph R. Biden on election night — essentially declaring him the next president. When Mr. Trump refused to concede and started attacking Fox as disloyal and dishonest, viewers began to change the channel.

The filings also revealed that top executives and on-air hosts had reacted with incredulity bordering on contempt to various fictitious allegations about Dominion. These included unsubstantiated rumors — repeatedly uttered by guests and hosts of Fox programs — that its voting machines could run a secret algorithm that switched votes from one candidate to another, and that the company was founded in Venezuela to help that country’s longtime leader, Hugo Ch├ívez, fix elections.

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Despite those misgivings, little changed about the content on shows like Mr. Dobbs’s and Ms. Bartiromo’s. For weeks after the election, viewers of Fox News and Fox Business heard a far different story from the one that Fox executives privately conceded was real.

Lawyers for Fox News, which filed a response to Dominion in court on Monday, argued that its commentary and reporting after the election did not amount to defamation because its hosts had not endorsed the falsehoods about Dominion, even if Mr. Murdoch stated otherwise in his deposition. As such, the network’s lawyers argued, Fox’s coverage was protected under the First Amendment.

“Far from reporting the allegations as true, hosts informed their audiences at every turn that the allegations were just allegations that would need to be proven in court in short order if they were going to impact the outcome of the election,” Fox lawyers said in their filing. “And to the extent some hosts commented on the allegations, that commentary is independently protected opinion.”

A Fox News spokeswoman said on Monday in response to the filing that Dominion’s case “has always been more about what will generate headlines than what can withstand legal scrutiny.” She added that the company had taken “an extreme, unsupported view of defamation law that would prevent journalists from basic reporting.”

In certain instances, Fox hosts did present the allegations as unproven and offered their opinions. And Fox lawyers have pointed to exchanges on the air when hosts challenged these claims and pressed Mr. Trump’s lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani to present evidence that never materialized.

But the case is also likely to revolve around questions about what people with the power to shape Fox’s on-air content knew about the validity of the fraud allegations as they gave pro-Trump election deniers a platform — often in front of hosts who mustered no pushback.

“There appears to be a pretty good argument that Fox endorsed the accuracy of what was being said,” said Lee Levine, a veteran First Amendment lawyer who has defended major media organizations in defamation cases. He added that Fox’s arguments were stronger against some of Dominion’s claims than others. But based on what he has seen of the case so far, Mr. Levine said, “I’d much rather be in Dominion’s shoes than Fox’s right now.”

Dominion’s filing casts Mr. Murdoch as a chairman who was both deeply engaged with his senior leadership about coverage of the election and operating at somewhat of a remove, unwilling to interfere. Asked by Dominion’s lawyer, Justin Nelson, whether he could have ordered Fox News to keep Trump lawyers like Ms. Powell and Mr. Giuliani off the air, Mr. Murdoch responded: “I could have. But I didn’t.”

The document also described how Paul D. Ryan, a former Republican speaker of the House and current member of the Fox Corporation board of directors, said in his deposition that he had implored Mr. Murdoch and his son Lachlan, the chief executive officer, “that Fox News should not be spreading conspiracy theories.” Mr. Ryan suggested instead that the network pivot and “move on from Donald Trump and stop spouting election lies.”

There was some discussion at the highest levels of the company about how to make that pivot, Dominion said.

On Jan. 5, 2021, the day before the attack at the Capitol, Mr. Murdoch and Suzanne Scott, the chief executive of Fox News Media, talked about whether Mr. Hannity and his fellow prime-time hosts, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham, should make it clear to viewers that Mr. Biden had won the election. Mr. Murdoch said in his deposition that he had hoped such a statement “would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election was stolen.”

According to the filing, Ms. Scott said of the hosts, “Privately they are all there,” but “we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers.” No statement of that kind was made on the air.

Dominion details the close relationship that Fox hosts and executives enjoyed with senior Republican Party officials and members of the Trump inner circle, revealing how at times Fox was shaping the very story it was covering. It describes how Mr. Murdoch placed a call to the Republican leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, immediately after the election. In his deposition, Mr. Murdoch testified that during that call he likely urged Mr. McConnell to “ask other senior Republicans to refuse to endorse Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories and baseless claims of fraud.”

Dominion also describes how Mr. Murdoch provided Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, with confidential information about ads that the Biden campaign would be running on Fox.

At one point, Dominion’s lawyers accuse Ms. Pirro, who hosted a Saturday evening talk show, of “laundering her own conspiracy theories through Powell.” The filing goes on to say Ms. Pirro bragged to her friends “that she was the source for Powell’s claims.” Dominion notes that this was “something she never shared with her audience.”

The filing on Monday included a deposition by Viet Dinh, Fox Corporation’s chief legal officer, who was one of the many senior executive cautioning about the content of Fox’s coverage. After Mr. Hannity told his audience on Nov. 5, 2020, that it would be “impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results,” Mr. Dinh told a group of senior executives including Lachlan Murdoch and Ms. Scott: “Hannity is getting awfully close to the line with his commentary and guests tonight.”

When asked in his deposition if Fox executives had an obligation to stop hosts of shows from broadcasting lies, Mr. Dinh said: “Yes, to prevent and correct known falsehoods.”

In their filing on Monday, Fox’s lawyers accused Dominion of cherry-picking evidence that some at Fox News knew the allegations against Dominion were not true and, therefore, acted out of actual malice, the legal standard required to prove defamation. 

“The vast majority of Dominion’s evidence comes from individuals who had zero responsibility for the statements Dominion challenges,” the lawyers said."

Murdoch Acknowledges Fox News Hosts Endorsed Election Fraud Falsehoods - The New York Times

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