Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox News’s parent company, acknowledged in a deposition that “some of our commentators were endorsing” the baseless narrative that the 2020 presidential election was stolen — and that he wishes the network did more to challenge those conspiracy theories.
Asked if Fox News host Jeanine Pirro endorsed the claims, Murdoch replied, “I think so.” He said that former host Lou Dobbs did so “a lot,” and that prime-time host Sean Hannity did so “a bit.”
The 91-year-old media mogul emerged as a major character in the latest filing by the election technology company, which claims that the network gravely hurt its business prospects when it allowed two lawyers for President Donald Trump, Sidney Powell and Rudolph Giuliani, to air wild claims of fraud on Fox programs.
Murdoch denied that Fox itself promoted those views, saying that the network was simply “treating it as news that the president and his lawyers were saying this.”
But Dominion’s filing shows Murdoch intimately involved in steering the network’s programming during the chaotic weeks after Election Day, as he tried to “straddle the issue” of election fraud in a way that would not anger viewers or the president.
In a particularly explosive part of the filing, Dominion alleges that Murdoch provided Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner with confidential network information about Joe Biden’s campaign ads as well as debate strategy, citing an exhibit that remains under seal.
A Murdoch spokesman declined to comment beyond a statement released by the network saying Dominion had “cherry-pick[ed]” salacious details “utterly irrelevant to the legal issues in this case.”
In its own filings, Fox News has argued that it never endorsed Powell and Giuliani’s election-fraud claims and that its hosts did not know the claims to be untrue at the time.
Fox also argues that communications unearthed by Dominion showing that network executives were highly skeptical of Powell and Giuliani’s baseless conspiracy theories do not suffice to prove that the company acted with “actual malice” — the high standard required to prove defamation — because those executives were not “responsible” for the baseless claims.
The latest Dominion filing builds on one made public Feb. 16 that presented evidence that Murdoch did not believe the Trump attorneys’ allegations of voter fraud. In Monday’s brief, Dominion cites Murdoch acknowledging that he doubted the claims from the beginning.
“I mean, we thought everything was on the up-and-up,” he said in his deposition. “I think that was shown when we announced Arizona,” referring to Fox’s election-night prediction that Biden would win the highly contested state.
He described himself as standing up to pressure from the Trump team. When Kushner pushed for him to recant the Arizona call, Murdoch recounted in his deposition that he refused to do so, saying, “Well, the numbers are the numbers.”
Yet Murdoch also acknowledged that he had a “long talk” with his son, Fox Corporation chief executive Lachlan Murdoch, and Fox News executive Suzanne Scott, about “the direction Fox should take” after some once-loyal Fox viewers, who saw the Arizona call as a betrayal, began flipping to other, more conservative channels.
When other television networks called the election for Biden on Nov. 7, 2020, Fox moved slower. In a private message revealed by Dominion’s filing, Murdoch told his son, “We should and could have gone first but at least being second saves us a Trump explosion!”
Lachlan Murdoch responded: “I think good to be careful. Especially as we are still somewhat exposed on Arizona.”
The younger Murdoch also expressed displeasure with his news division’s coverage of a Nov. 14, 2020, rally in support of Trump, which he felt was excessively negative, according to internal messages contained in the filing
“News guys have to be careful how they cover this rally,” he wrote to Scott. “So far some of the side comments are slightly anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this is a huge celebration of the president.”
Rupert Murdoch expressed ambivalence about MyPillow founder Mike Lindell, saying it was “wrong” to allow the pro-Trump conspiracy theorist to appear on Tucker Carlson’s show in January 2021 but that he “pays us a lot of money.” And he acknowledged that he could have stopped Giuliani from appearing on his network “but didn’t.”
The filings suggest that former House speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), a Fox Corporation board member, tried to discourage the airing of election misinformation, telling both Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch “that Fox News should not be spreading conspiracy theories.”
Ryan, according to the filing, was “hopeful that the events of January 6 were so shocking that it would help the conservative movement and Fox News move on from Donald Trump” — a sentiment that appeared to have been partially shared by the elder Murdoch.
In an email to Ryan, Murdoch wrote that Jan. 6 was a “wake-up call for Hannity, who has been privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers.” And in an email to a former company executive, he wrote that Fox News was “very busy pivoting” after Jan. 6: “We want to make Trump a non person.”
A key hurdle in pivoting, though, was what the audience would accept. In an email to his son revealed in the filing, Murdoch wrote, “We have to lead our viewers, which is not as easy as it might seem.”
Dominion’s filing suggests the company appears ready to argue that Murdoch exerted heavy control over what was broadcast on Fox — and that he opted not to draw a bright line when it came to election claims.
“I’m a journalist at heart,” Murdoch is quoted as saying in his deposition. “I like to be involved in these things.”
He agreed that he “would routinely suggest stories to Ms. Scott about what Fox News or Fox Business should cover,” and also occasionally, which guests. When former Fox anchor Shepard Smith attacked the “Trump administration’s ‘lies’” on air, Murdoch emailed Scott and another executive, Jay Wallace, calling it “Over the top!” and telling them, “Need to chat to him.”
In his deposition, Murdoch said that he “suggested, or urged” that Dobbs’s “extremist” views were a problem for Fox and admitted that he “could have suggested at any point to fire Lou Dobbs.” But Dobbs remained with Fox until February 2021, and Dominion argues this was because Dobbs was popular with Trump’s base.
“Nobody wants Trump as an enemy,” Murdoch is quoted as saying in his deposition, later elaborating that “[W]e all know that Trump has a big following. If he says, ‘Don’t watch Fox News,’ maybe some don’t.”
In contrast, the filing notes, Murdoch acted more quickly in the case of Bill Sammon, a news executive who oversaw the fateful Arizona call, suggesting in an internal communication “maybe best to let Bill go right away” as a “big message with Trump people.” Sammon was dismissed the same day Murdoch made the suggestion, according to the filing.
In a statement provided on Monday in response to Dominion’s latest brief, a Fox News spokesperson said that the 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.”