Several of Fox News’ star commentators, including Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, “endorsed” claims on their primetime shows that the 2020 US election had been stolen from Donald Trump, the channel’s owner Rupert Murdoch acknowledged, as the company prepares to face a landmark defamation lawsuit over its coverage of the vote.
In sworn testimony given earlier this year to lawyers for election-machine manufacturer Dominion, which is suing Fox News and its owner Fox Corp for $1.6bn, Murdoch denied that the conservative news channel as a whole pushed the narrative of the election being fraudulently awarded to Joe Biden.
But he acknowledged that commentators such as Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo had endorsed the idea to varying degrees.
Asked if Fox News “did more than simply host” guests such as Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, but rather gave them a “platform”, Murdoch answered: “I think you’ve shown me some material in support of that”.
The remarks will bolster the argument from Dominion — which was accused by the Trump campaign and its allies of falsely allocating votes for Biden and being engaged in a conspiracy which included working for Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez — that Fox should be held liable for broadcasting these allegations to a mass audience.
Fox has argued that a “reasonable viewer” would have understood the channel to just be airing claims made by others, rather than passing comment on their accuracy.
In court filings posted on Monday, Fox also denied that Murdoch directly influenced Fox News’s coverage of the election-rigging claims, claiming that neither the 91-year-old media mogul nor other Fox Corp employees “played any role in the creation or the publication” of statements alleging that Dominion’s machines were manipulated.
Dominion revealed in separate filings earlier this month that Murdoch had messaged senior Fox News executives in the aftermath of the election, calling allegations of fraud advanced by Trump and his allies “crazy”, and suggesting that the channel’s airing of them was alienating middle-of-the-road viewers.
Dominion also said in a filing on Monday that Murdoch had been called by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, on election night, who urged him to get Fox News to reverse its call announcing that Biden had won the state of Arizona.
“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’,” Murdoch added.
But lawyers for Fox Corp disputed the billionaire’s influence over Fox News’ actual coverage. It said an executive producer for star host Tucker Carlson’s show testified that Murdoch never communicated “anything specific relating to a story, such as the 2020 election”, and that [News Corp co-chair] Lachlan Murdoch “doesn’t get involved in direct editorial decisions”.
The companies also claimed that Dominion’s extracts of conversations between Fox Corp and Fox News executives, as well as within Fox News — gathered from more than 1mn pages of emails, texts and instant messages — were taken out of context.
In a statement, Fox News said the complaint “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 recognised for what it is: a blatant violation of the First Amendment”.