Rupert Murdoch was concerned that some of his top talent might have pushed Donald Trump’s stolen election myth too far.
In an email to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott the day after President Joe Biden’s inauguration, the Fox Corporation chairman lamented the anger the network was getting from Republican senators, including Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, for stories suggesting the election had been stolen.
“Still getting mud thrown at us!” Murdoch said. “Maybe Sean and Laura went too far,” he continued, referring to prime-time hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
The revelation is among hundreds of pages of testimony, private text messages and emails from top Fox News journalists and executives that were made public Tuesday, adding to the trove of documents that show a network in crisis after it alienated core viewers by reporting accurately on the results of the 2020 presidential election.
A judge unsealed the documents, along with portions of some employee depositions, as part of the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit Fox News is facing from Dominion Voting Systems.
The messages are blunt and, at times, profane, as hosts and top executives panicked about how to boost their ratings as then-President Donald Trump refused to acknowledge his defeat. The depositions, meanwhile, offer the broadest picture yet of how executives including Murdoch allowed baseless conspiracy theories to flourish on air.
In a statement, Fox News accused Dominion of dishonestly portraying key figures’ internal communications.
“Thanks to today’s filings, 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 statement said. “We already know they will say and do anything to try to win this case, but to twist and even misattribute quotes to the highest levels of our company is truly beyond the pale.”
Smaller snippets of the exchanges were referenced in two Dominion briefs made public in a Delaware court last month, when Dominion sought a summary judgment ruling from the judge and opposed Fox News’ own motion asking the judge to dismiss the case.
Dominion’s briefs previously revealed how top figures at Fox News privately blasted election fraud claims as “crazy” and “insane,” even as the network aired them on television, and that top boss Murdoch considered some of Trump’s voter fraud claims to be “bulls— and damaging,” yet acknowledged in a deposition he did nothing to rein in hosts who were promoting the bogus claims in the days after the 2020 election.
Dominion sued Fox News in March 2021, alleging the network caused the voting machine company “severe damage” by giving oxygen to conspiracy theories it knew were false, including bogus claims that Dominion equipment was used to rig the 2020 election for Joe Biden, that it was tied to the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and that it bribed U.S. government officials.
Fox News has previously said it was “proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism,” and argued that the Dominion lawsuit is designed only to garner headlines. Dominion argues that the First Amendment doesn’t allow media outlets to broadcast conspiracy theories that they know are false.
“As the dominant media company among those viewers dissatisfied with the election results, Fox gave these fictions a prominence they otherwise would never have achieved. With Fox’s global platform, an audience of hundreds of millions, and the inevitable and extensive republication and dissemination of the falsehoods through social media, these lies deeply damaged Dominion’s once-thriving business,” the company’s 441-page lawsuit says. “Fox took a small flame and turned it into a forest fire.”
Here are some of the key highlights:
Murdoch worried Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham ‘went too far’
In his email to Scott the day after Biden’s inauguration, Murdoch discussed the heat he was getting from GOP senators for stories suggesting the election had been stolen.
“Still getting mud thrown at us!” Murdoch wrote. “Maybe Sean and Laura went too far,” he continued, referring to prime time hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
He also asked Scott if it was “unarguable that high profile Fox voices fed the story that the election was stolen and that January 6th an important chance to have the result overturned”?
Scott punted the request to a group of executives, noting “please send specifics.”
Six hours later, Irena Briganti, the Fox News executive in charge of communications, responded with more than 15 pages of transcripts of examples.
Prime time hosts were furious at the news division for its accurate election call
In a group text chain from mid-November, Hannity, Ingraham and Tucker Carlson complained about their news colleagues and the network’s decision to call Arizona in favor of Biden. Fox News was the first network to do so, and the call was accurate.
“Why would anyone defend that call,” Hannity asked.
“My anger at the news channel is pronounced,” Ingraham said later in the exchange.
Carlson piped in saying, “It should be. We devote our lives to building an audience and they let Chris Wallace and Leland (expletive) Vittert wreck it. Too much.”
Wallace and Vittert were Fox News hosts and anchors at the time.
Maria Bartiromo said she would not refer to Biden as the president-elect on air
In text messages with longtime Trump ally Steve Bannon on Nov. 10, 2020, Fox News host Maria Bartiromo said, “Omg I’m so depressed. I can’t take this” and lamented how upsetting it was to watch the “world move forward.”
“I want to see massive fraud exposed. Will he be able to turn this around,” she added, referring to Trump. “I told my team we are not allowed to say pres elect at all. Not in scripts or in banners on air. Until this moves through the courts.”
“You are our fighter,” Bannon later replied. “Enough with the sad ! We need u.”
Biden was projected the winner of the presidential race on Nov. 7.
Murdoch predicted Trump would soon be ‘irrelevant’
In an email to former Fox executive Preston Padden 20 days after the election, Murdoch said he believed the network was “navigating” everything “pretty well.”
“And losing tons of viewers – but not leadership yet! Just have to hold our nerve and up our game! In another month Trump will be becoming irrelevant and we’ll have lots to say about Biden, Dems, and appointments – so far pretty dull,” he predicted.
Murdoch’s name is redacted, but the email was mentioned and attributed to him in previously released briefs.
Fox News executive observes: ‘It’s remarkable how weak ratings makes good journalists do bad things’
In a conversation with Fox News journalist Chris Stirewalt on Dec. 2, 2020, about a month after the election, Bill Sammon, who was then the managing editor of the network, lamented the state of the place they worked.
“More than 20 minutes into our flagship evening news broadcast and we’re still focused solely on supposed election fraud — a month after the election. It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” Sammon said.
“It’s a real mess,” Stirewalt added. “But sadly no surprise based on the man I saw revealed on election night.”
“In my 22 years affiliated with Fox, this is the closest thing I’ve seen to an existential crisis — at least journalistically,” Sammon replied.
Stirewalt later said he believed they were “losing the silent majority of viewers as we chase the nuts off a cliff.”
Carlson on Trump: ‘I hate him passionately’
Carlson, one of Fox News’ top hosts, made clear on Jan. 4, 2021, that he was getting fed up with Trump. In a text exchange with an unknown person, Carlson said, “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait.”
“I hate him passionately. I blew up at Peter Navarro today in frustration,” he added, referring to the former Trump administration official. “I actually like Peter. But I can’t handle much more of this.”
Carlson, however, has complained about how reporters appear to “hate Trump with an all-consuming mania,” as he did in a segment on Oct. 30, 2020.
Murdoch said ‘everything changed’ after the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol
In an email Jan. 12 to Paul Ryan — the former Wisconsin congressman who served on Fox Corporation’s board — and his son, Lachlan, Rupert Murdoch talked about the fallout from the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.
“Just talked at length with Suzanne Scott,” he said, referring to the Fox News CEO. “Everything changed last Wednesday. She thinks everyone is now disgusted and previous supporters broken hearted.”
Murdoch also said that Trump was now in serious trouble.
“His businesses now ruined!” he said. “Who is going to throw a party at one of his golf clubs or hotels? Let alone a tournament. Who he has more than just legal problems, bad though they are. The brand is now poison! Who wants Ivanka’s fashion lines, jewelry, etc?!”
Murdoch even wondered if Trump could resign and have Vice President Mike Pence pardon him.
Fox Corporation: Murdoch never shared unaired Biden ad
The newly unsealed documents call into question whether Rupert Murdoch did in fact share unaired Biden campaign ads with the Trump campaign through Jared Kushner, as a Dominion filing last week claimed.
In his sworn deposition, Murdoch both denies and admits to sharing campaign ads with the Trump campaign before they were public. In emails released as exhibits, Murdoch promises to share an ad timed for a football game. It’s unclear if he’s talking about an aired or unaired ad.
“Mr. Murdoch forwarded an already-publicly available Biden campaign ad which was available on YouTube,” a Fox Corporation spokesman, Lauren Townsend, said in an email to NBC News.
Two groups filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission against the Trump campaign and Fox Corporation over the alleged ad sharing.