By DAVID BAUDER and JENNIFER PELTZ
NEW YORK (AP) — Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch said under oath that he believes the 2020 presidential election was free, fair and not stolen, according to court filings released Tuesday in a lawsuit over Fox News’ coverage of former President Donald Trump’s unfounded election fraud claims.
In sworn questioning in January by lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems, Murdoch was asked, “Do you believe that the 2020 presidential election was free and fair?”
“Yes,” he replied, according to a transcript.
“The election was not stolen,” he said later.
Dominion is suing Fox News for $1.6 billion, saying the network crippled the company’s business by broadcasting false claims from Trump’s lawyers that Dominion had changed votes in the 2020 election.
Hundreds of pages of exhibits in the lawsuit, which is expected to go to trial next month, were released late Tuesday. They shed further light on internal skepticism at Fox over the fraud claims and the network’s worry about viewers angry with its own election-night declaration that Democrat Joe Biden had won Arizona. Those exhibits and earlier court filings demonstrate how Fox hosts and executives continued to promote those claims to viewers, despite strong doubts and denials behind the scenes.
Federal and state election officials, exhaustive reviews in battleground states and Trump’s attorney general found no widespread fraud that could have changed the outcome of the 2020 election. Nor did they uncover any credible evidence that the vote was tainted. Trump’s allegations of fraud also have been roundly rejected by dozens of courts, including by judges he had appointed.
Fox says Dominion is inventing its claims of lost business and has cherry-picked and misrepresented remarks by Fox hosts and leaders to paint a picture of a company that threw truth aside to keep its audience.
“Dominion has been caught red-handed using more distortions and misinformation in their PR campaign to smear Fox News and trample on free speech and freedom of the press,” the company said in a statement Tuesday, complaining that “to twist and even misattribute quotes to the highest levels of our company is truly beyond the pale.”
The documents revealed top Fox executives discussed ways of mollifying anger from Trump’s team over the election call, including a quick dismissal of a Washington executive who was behind the Arizona decision.
“We don’t want to antagonize Trump further,” Murdoch said in a Nov. 16 memo. He explained in the deposition, “He had a very large following, and they were probably mostly viewers of Fox, so it would have been stupid.”
In an earlier unsealed filing in the Dominion case, Murdoch acknowledged that some of the network’s hosts — Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity — at times endorsed the false claims. He also said he didn’t stop the commentators from promoting the false claims from Trump allies that the election was stolen, even though he could have.
Former House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Fox Corp. board member, said he never believed Trump’s conspiracy theories about the election.
In a Dec. 7 text to Fox executive Lachlan Murdoch, Ryan suggested that Fox broadcast a “solid pushback” against the allegations of fraud, noting that “this is a key inflection point for Fox, where the right thing and the smart business thing to do line up nicely.”
The exhibits included an extraordinary three-way text conversation on Nov. 16, 2020, among the stars of Fox’s prime-time lineup: Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. In the conversation, the three opinion stars complained bitterly — and profanely — that they were being hurt by Fox’s news division.
“We devote our lives to building an audience and they let (news anchors) Chris Wallace and Leland … Vittert wreck it,” Carlson said, using an expletive.
“I’m disgusted at this point,” Hannity said.
Ingraham said that “we should all think about how together we can force a change. The audience that exists comes for us.”
Carlson, who just this week told Fox News viewers that the election that unseated Trump “was a grave betrayal of American democracy,” spoke bluntly about the former president in text messages that were revealed as part of Dominion’s case.
On Jan. 4, 2021, Carlson told an unidentified person he was texting with that “we are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights.” He said of the outgoing president, “I hate him passionately.”
In another text exchange more than a month earlier, Carlson denigrated Trump’s business abilities: “What he’s good at is destroy things. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”
The pressure on Fox from its audience after its correct Arizona call was felt in Fox’s news ranks, too. In a memo sent two days after the election to Bill Sammon, Fox’s managing editor in Washington, Fox News anchor Bret Baier said it was getting “really uncomfortable” having to defend the decision on the air.
Baier suggested that the sooner Fox changed its decision and declared Trump the winner in Arizona, “the better we are,” even if it caused the network embarrassment.
Sammon replied, “It’s not pride that’s got us sticking to the call — it’s math. I’m confident we will be proven right.”
He was — and two months later Fox forced him out of his job.
The exhibits released Tuesday had several references to accusations against Dominion made by Trump attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudolph Giuliani. In one email, Fox’s Dana Perino references a Powell interview with Fox’s Maria Bartiromo, saying “this is nuts.” Carlson says in a text message that “Sidney Powell is lying.”
An email sent Tuesday to a representative of Powell seeking comment was not immediately returned.
Four days after the election, Powell forwarded an email to Bartiromo from a woman who claimed that voting irregularities in a number of states had Dominion as “one common thread.”
Fox said the woman’s email has been misrepresented as being a key source of Fox’s reporting on Dominion. Bartiromo said in her deposition that she didn’t remember the email beyond forwarding it to her producer to check out.
Also Tuesday, another voting tech company suing Fox News argued that Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch played a leading role in airing false claims that its technology helped “steal” the 2020 presidential election from Trump.
Smartmatic said the Murdochs, as the ultimate authorities at the network’s corporate parent, “directed Fox News Network to embrace disinformation following the 2020 U.S. election as a business decision.”
Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta; Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix; Gary Fields in Washington; and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.