Rupert Murdoch admits some of his Fox News hosts 'endorsed' stolen election claims

A headline about then-president Donald Trump is displayed outside Fox News studios in New York on Nov. 28, 2018. Fox Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch acknowledged in a deposition that some Fox News commentators endorsed the false allegations by Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and that he did not step in to stop them from promoting the claims.   (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press - image credit)

Rupert Murdoch admitted in a deposition that he didn't step in to prevent Fox News on-air personalities from airing unfounded allegations by former president Donald Trump and his surrogates that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen.

That's according to excerpts of a deposition involving the Fox Corp. chairman unsealed Monday as part of the defamation lawsuit against the cable news giant filed by Dominion Voting Systems, the company founded in Toronto.

The unsealed documents include excerpts from a deposition in which Murdoch was asked about whether he was aware that some of the network's commentators — Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity — at times endorsed the electoral fraud claims. Murdoch replied, "Yes. They endorsed."

The Murdoch deposition is the latest filing in the defamation case to reveal concerns at the top-rated network over how it was handling Trump's claims as its ratings plummeted after it called Arizona for Joe Biden, angering Trump and his supporters.

Trump allies such as Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell appeared on Fox News and falsely claimed Dominion software may have manipulated vote counts in favour of Biden. Wild claims about Dominion's origin story, connecting it to late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez, were also made.

Murdoch was asked in his deposition whether he could have requested that Powell and Giuliani not be put on the air.

"I could have. But I didn't," he replied.

According to multiple U.S. media reports regarding the unsealed deposition, Murdoch also shared unaired Biden campaign ads with Trump son-in-law and White House adviser Jared Kushner.

Murdoch's Post pushed back on fraud narrative

An earlier filing this month demonstrated a gulf between the stolen election narrative the network was airing in primetime and doubts about the claims raised by its stars and executives behind the scenes. In that filing, Murdoch referred in an internal message to "the Trump myth that the election was stolen."

Another Murdoch-owned property did push back on Trump's claims. On Nov. 7, a New York Post editorial argued that Trump needed to "stop the 'stolen election' rhetoric" and for his advisers to "Get Rudy Giuliani off TV," but Fox didn't follow suit.

"If Fox was smart, it would definitely settle this case because things are looking bad for it both legally and journalistically," journalism professor and Syracuse University Newhouse School associate dean Joel Kaplan told CBC News in an email interview earlier this month. "That said, they now have themselves in a huge bind because if they settle, after the release of so much damaging information, the take is that they knew what they were doing was wrong."

WATCH l Revelations from internal communications involving well-known Fox figures:

Dominion, which has its American headquarters in Colorado, is suing both Fox News Network and parent company Fox Corp. for defamation and is asking for $1.6 billion US in damages.

To be successful at trial, which is scheduled to begin in mid-April, Dominion must prove by a preponderance of the evidence not just that the statements were false but that the Fox defendants acted with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth.

Many U.S. defamation cases involving media organizations don't make it to trial because of the high bar to prove actual malice. Those not dismissed by the courts are often settled by defendants before trial, so as not to expose internal deliberations and sensitive company information to wider scrutiny.

That happened in 2020, when Fox settled a lawsuit with the parents of Seth Rich after having aired or published spurious conspiracies regarding the killing of the young Democratic organization staffer.

Murdoch's authority irrelevant, Fox lawyers argue

Dominion's lawyers contend that executives in the "chain of command" at both Fox News and Fox Corp. knew the network was broadcasting "known lies, had the power to stop it, but chose to let it continue."

Furthermore, Dominion has said, rulings in other cases establish precedent that publishers can't hide behind the fact the false utterances were made by non-employees.

Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press
Mary Altaffer/The Associated Press

Fox News has said claims being made by legal representatives of the president of the United States are inherently newsworthy, and it's called the lawsuit an assault on the First Amendment.

Lawyers for Fox Corp. noted in Monday's filing that Murdoch also testified that he never discussed Dominion or voter fraud with any of the accused Fox News hosts. They say Dominion has produced "zero evidentiary support" for the claim that high-level executives at Fox Corp. had any role in creating or publishing the statements at issue.

Dominion's contention that the company should be held liable because Murdoch might have had the power to step in  "has no basis in defamation law, would obliterate the distinction between corporate parents and subsidiaries, and finds no support in the evidence," Fox lawyers said.

Dominion has alleged that the network didn't want to hurt its bottom line, as hard-right networks like Newsmax and OANN faithfully aired the electoral fraud claims.

'The stock price is down'

In the filing earlier this month, it was revealed that Fox host Tucker Carlson wanted a Fox reporter fired after she tweeted a fact-check on Trump fraud claims.

"It's measurably hurting the company," Carlson said. "The stock price is down. Not a joke."

The tweet by the reporter was deleted within a few hours.

The now-disbanded House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol heard that many of Trump's top advisers, including attorney general William Barr, repeatedly warned him that the allegations he was making about fraud were false.

The Trump administration's cybersecurity officials characterized the vote as "the most secure in American history," and dozens of challenges to the result were tossed, including by some Trump-appointed federal judges.