Rupert Murdoch became increasingly alarmed as he watched the rolling footage of Donald Trump at a rally in Georgia, where the outgoing president shouted lies about election fraud to his supporters.
It was December 5th, 2020, a month after Trump lost the US election, and he was making the outlandish and incoherent claim that his opponent Joe Biden had won with votes “coming out of ceilings and leather bags”.
For Murdoch and his Fox News network, the unprecedented refusal to admit defeat in a presidential election presented a serious dilemma. A few days later, the media mogul fired off an email to the network’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, warning that Trump’s erratic behaviour was “making it harder to straddle the issue” of the result. “We should talk through this. Very difficult,” he wrote.
The exchange was but one example of the turmoil and conflicting interests that plagued Fox News in the aftermath of the 2020 election. That internal unrest has exploded into public view in recent weeks following the release of evidence filed by voting machine maker Dominion, which is suing Fox for defamation and seeking $1.6bn in damages.
Denver-based Dominion was catapulted into the limelight when the Trump campaign claimed its devices fraudulently awarded votes to Biden. In its lawsuit filed in March 2021, the voting machine company said those allegations were amplified by conservative news outlets, particularly Fox News, which gave them “a prominence they otherwise would never have achieved”.
The evidence – which consists of depositions and hundreds of internal company communications harvested during legal discovery – shows that for months, Fox agonised over how to handle Trump’s election denialism.
The December email to Scott came after Murdoch and his eldest son Lachlan, Fox’s chief executive, received a panicked text from Paul Ryan, former speaker of the House and a Fox board member.
“We are entering a truly bizarre phase of this where [Trump] has actually convinced himself of this farce”, Ryan wrote as he urged Rupert and Lachlan to do the “right thing” and broadcast a “solid pushback” of the lies. Rupert asked Lachlan to call him to talk it over, noting Trump had “sounded really crazy” that weekend in Georgia.
During a critical two-month period that began with Trump calling foul on the result, and which culminated in a mob of his supporters storming the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021, Rupert Murdoch and his top aides and presenters appeared to be at sea over how to handle the situation.
The legal filings – some thicker than 200 pages – were rich in TV-worthy details as juicy as the plot lines of Succession, the popular HBO series based in part on the Murdoch family. They chronicle in painstaking detail the internal discussions at the highest reaches of Murdoch’s Fox Corp in the months after the election.
Conventional wisdom has it that Murdoch is an all-powerful puppet master, his underlings twitching as he pulls their strings, shaping politics and swaying elections. But the filings paint a picture of Murdoch and Fox executives being terrified that viewers would desert the channel.
We are entering a truly bizarre phase of this where Trump has actually convinced himself of this farce
On November 3, election night, Fox had accurately predicted that Biden won the vote in Arizona. The call infuriated Trump and his supporters, prompting executives, producers and hosts to discuss the need to “respect the audience” and “restore trust”.
CNN was “creaming” Fox in the ratings, Murdoch complained to Scott on November 8th, 2020 after networks called the election for Biden, resulting in a “long talk” about what to do, according to the filings. Tucker Carlson, one of Fox’s most popular hosts, told his producer that week: “[Trump] could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.”
Lachlan, Rupert’s chosen heir, texted Scott on November 9th, telling her Fox needed “constant rebuilding without any missteps”. Lachlan later testified that Fox’s falling ratings would “keep me awake” at night.
“It really was panic station at Fox News,” observed Paddy Manning, an Australian biographer of Lachlan.
They had good reason to be concerned. Fox News is one of the most profitable parts of the Murdoch family empire, earning $1.8 billion of operating income in 2020, according to estimates by media research group Kagan. “It’s not red or blue, it’s green,” Rupert Murdoch said of the channel when deposed in Los Angeles in January as part of the lawsuit.
Murdoch conceded that while he did not believe the fraud claims, he did not want to antagonise Trump because “he had a very large following, and they were probably viewers of Fox, so it would have been stupid”.
Within days of the election, it became clear to Fox hosts that their audience wanted to hear the stolen election narrative. Carlson’s producer on November 10th texted him: “It’s all our viewers care about right now,” to which Carlson replied: “I just hate this shit.”
Other Fox personalities seized on the opportunity, with Lou Dobbs regularly bringing Trump’s lawyer Sidney Powell, one of the main proponents of the Dominion theory, onto his show in November and December. Dobbs testified that these broadcasts drew ratings that were more than double his average.
Fox’s own internal fact-checkers concluded as early as November 13th that the fraud accusations were incorrect. But when a Fox News reporter tweeted a “fact check” of Trump’s voter fraud claims, Carlson demanded that someone “get her fired”. Scott said the reporter “had serious nerve doing this . . . viewers are going to be further disgusted”.
The chaos continued until January 6th, when Trump supporters staged the attack on the US Capitol building. A day earlier, Rupert Murdoch had asked Scott whether Fox’s “primetime three” – Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham – should make a public statement that Biden had won the election, putting to rest the fraud myth. No such announcement was made. Scott was worried about “pissing off the viewers”, she told Murdoch, according to an email.
Within days of the election, it became clear to Fox hosts that their audience wanted to hear the stolen election narrative
In the aftermath of the riot, some of Murdoch’s allies begged him to do something. Preston Padden, a former aide, emailed him asking for a “course correction”. Murdoch told him the network was “very busy pivoting” and wanted to “make Trump a non-person”.
Murdoch, who calls Scott daily and sometimes attends editorial meetings, confirmed in the deposition that he still actively participates in shaping the direction of Fox News. “I’m a journalist at heart. I like to be involved in these things.”
But he also played down his power at times, appearing to blame Fox hosts for the claims being aired on the channel. A week after January 6th, when Ryan again pressed Rupert over the “high percentage of Americans” who believed the election was stolen, Murdoch replied it was “wake-up call for Hannity, who . . . was scared to lose viewers”.
In a response to the Dominion lawsuit on Monday, Fox said: “Neither Rupert nor Lachlan Murdoch, nor anyone else at Fox Corporation, played any role whatsoever in creating or publishing any of the statements Dominion challenges.”
Fox News added in a separate statement that Dominion’s “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”.
Even after the avalanche of evidence released in recent days, Dominion faces an uphill struggle to prove Fox acted with “actual malice”, the high legal standard for defamation in the US, according to many legal commentators.
And while the hundreds of embarrassing emails and messages might cause some discomfort for Murdoch, who turns 92 next week, some supporters say he is unruffled by the drama.
“He has thick skin, and he’s not sentimental,” said one executive who worked for him for decades. “He just moves on.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023