In the weeks after the November 2020 election, Rupert Murdoch, the powerful chairman of Fox Corp., fretted that Donald Trump, the president he had supported, was going “increasingly mad.”
He worried some ideas proposed by Trump’s allies to convince state legislatures to reject Biden victories in key swing states “sound ridiculous” and could lead to “riots like never before.”
Murdoch’s astonishingly candid assessments are found in thousands of pages of internal Fox documents, as well as text messages and emails exchanged between the network’s top executives and news hosts, made public on Tuesday as part of a defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox.
The voting machine company argues that Fox defamed the company by broadcasting falsehoods claiming that Dominion machines were used to help Biden defeat Trump. Fox has said it was covering Trump’s newsworthy claims, not endorsing them, and has accused Dominion of “distortions and misinformation in their PR campaign to smear FOX News and trample on free speech and freedom of the press.” The case is scheduled to go to trial in Delaware next month.
The documents provide an extraordinary window into the internal musings of the Australian-born executive, who has long been considered one of the most powerful figures in global media.
Then 89, Murdoch emerges in the documents as an extraordinarily engaged and active figure at the network in the weeks after the 2020 election, not to mention a political junkie and pundit of daily news developments, large and small.
“Huge story today,” he wrote to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott on Nov. 9, 2020, after Pfizer announced promising progress on developing a vaccine for the coronavirus. “People’ll be hungry for every detail. What if it happened two weeks earlier!?”
“Horrible,” he declared in early December 2020, after Axios reported that Trump was considering a grand finale rally to be held in Florida on Inauguration Day, to take attention away from Biden as he took the oath. Trump’s behavior, Murdoch wrote, was making it more difficult for Fox to “straddle the issue” of the election.
The most frequent recipients of Murdoch’s steady stream of missives included his son Lachlan, the CEO of Fox Corp., as well as Scott. But other emails went to a wide array of Murdoch friends, from the New York Post’s former editor to the Australian owner of television stations in Afghanistan.
Unlike many of Fox’s viewers, Murdoch appeared to understand quickly in the days after the November vote that Trump had lost — and to find the president’s behavior increasingly distressing as Trump refused to accept that reality.
Trump would “concede eventually,” Murdoch erroneously predicted in an email to Scott 13 days after the election.
Seven days later, Murdoch remained confident Trump was fading from the political scene.
“In another month Trump will be becoming irrelevant and we’ll have lots to say about Biden, Dems, and appointments,” he wrote to former Fox executive Preston Padden on Nov. 23, 2020.
But Murdoch appeared to be growing concerned about Trump’s behavior, writing to a friend that Trump appeared “increasingly mad” — with his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, “encouraging … and misleading him.”
“Apparently not sleeping and bouncing off walls!” Murdoch added. “Don’t know about Melania, but kids no help.”
Murdoch’s personal stances were in sharp contrast to the messages being broadcast nightly on Fox News’s popular opinion shows. Despite his views on Trump, Murdoch appeared at times concerned that the network’s news coverage not antagonize the mercurial president and risk angering his supporters. Ratings showed those viewers were abandoning the network in favor of other outlets that fully embraced Trump’s election lies.
(On Truth Social last week, Trump appeared to respond to the emerging news from the Fox documents. “Rupert Murdoch should apologize to his viewers and readers for his ridiculous defense of the 2020 Presidential Election. How many forms of cheating and rigging does he have to see?” he wrote.)
In the emails, Murdoch comes across as a fully invested partisan warrior, with no pretense of balance in his political preferences. He was, for instance, in correspondence with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, sending emails to the key Trump adviser from his iPhone and signing them “Rupert.”
“Know you are spending less on tv than Biden,” Murdoch wrote to Kushner six weeks before the election “However my people tell me his [advertisements] are a lot better creatively than yours.”
Kushner replied the next day, assuring the media executive, “Should have some new creative out this week. I did a review and like what [I’m] seeing.”
“Your [advertisement] at 1 p.m. this Sunday an improvement,” Murdoch responded.
With the approach of the Jan. 5, 2021, runoff in the Georgia Senate races — an election that would determine control of the U.S. Senate and that came against the backdrop of Trump’s ongoing attacks on the presidential election — Murdoch said the network “should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can.”
The documents show that Murdoch had the Georgia races on his mind as he watched a Nov. 19 news conference at which Giuliani made wild claims about the election, as hair dye ran down the side of his face.
“Really crazy stuff. And damaging,” he wrote in an email to chief executive of News Corp., Robert Thomson. “Might even lead to a double loss in Georgia.”
Ultimately, Democrats did win both Senate seats, handing control of the chamber to their party. The next day, rioters who had been fed a steady stream of false claims about the election stormed the U.S. Capitol.
The attack: The Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol was neither a spontaneous act nor an isolated event
That event appears to have given Murdoch pause. Two days later, he emailed a former Fox executive: “Fox News very busy pivoting … We want to make Trump a non person.”
Finally, on Jan. 21, 2021, the day after Biden took office, Murdoch appeared to be grappling with Fox’s role in the events of the previous weeks.
“Maybe Sean and Laura went too far,” he wrote, a reference to two of Fox’s top prime-time stars, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
“All very well for Sean to tell you he was in despair about Trump,” he continued, “but what did he tell his viewers?”