Someone has to handle the truth.
In the 1992 legal drama “A Few Good Men,” a senior military commander played by Jack Nicholson is asked over and over if he ordered a “code red,” or an off-the-books dictate that sent underlings scurrying to do something they probably should not have done. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch and many of the top executives and anchors at Fox News Channel may feel like they are stuck in a reboot of that film.
In a remarkable series of depositions that have been made available from much-scrutinized litigation between voting-technology company Dominion Voting Systems and Fox Corporation, top officers at Fox and its most lucrative subsidiary, Fox News Media, are grilled over whether they have direct responsibility for stories, talent and reporting that airs on Fox News Channel or Fox Business Network. In many instances, the executives say they do not.
“I’m not the CEO of Fox News. I’m not responsible for the editorial on Fox News. I don’t make editorial decisions on Fox News,” said Lachlan Murdoch, CEO of Fox Corporation, during one of the depositions. “For me to criticize or to endorse or even talk about a newspaper article or a Fox News opinion piece, I think it becomes very challenging. And I think it’s ultimately — ultimately the wrong thing — the wrong thing to do.”
Proving that Murdoch, or his father, Rupert, the executive chairman of Fox, had direct influence over what appears and what is said on Fox News will be a central mission of attorneys for Dominion, which is suing Fox for $1.6 billion in damages it alleges it is owed after Fox News made false claims about the Dominion’s actions and influence on the 2020 election. It is the second legal proceeding made against Fox News for its coverage of the aftermath of the 2020 race for the White House. Smartmatic, a separate voting technology company, has filed a massive $2.7 billion suit against Fox News. At issue in the suits are allegations that Fox News falsely claimed the companies had rigged the election, repeated items about the matter and then refused to engage in efforts to set the record straight. The 2020 election was not fixed and its results were certified by multiple legal processes.
Defamation suits are extremely difficult to prove, and a plaintiff must show that the defendants in the case were planning such action with malice ahead of the time that the remarks in question were made. However, a judge has allowed both cases against Fox to proceed and it seems likely that both could head to trial.
Legal experts have already expressed a strong belief that Fox might be found culpable. Dominion has collected troves of conversations in texts and emails showing that some of Fox News’ most popular personalities believed allegations about Dominion and the 2020 election made by surrogates for President Trump were false. Fox has alleged that Dominion has taken quotes out of context to induce maximum shock. “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,” Fox said in a statement.
Even the top operational executive overseeing Fox News declined to take any blame. “I don’t decide what’s on Fox News. I entrust that to the editorial leadership teams and the individual shows to make those decisions about what’s in their shows,” said Suzanne Scott, CEO of Fox News Media, in one of the depositions. She added: “You know, have to understand, I take a 50,000-foot view with all of the businesses, ·and I don’t get granularly involved in the handling of shows on the network. Either network, either platform, and any platform.”
As for Rupert Murdoch, who, despite being in his 90s, is still seen as Fox’s guiding light? He portrayed himself as a person of little influence.
“And, sir, when you speak, you understand that, just like E.F. Hutton, people listen?” asked one interlocutor.
“I don’t really think so,” Murdoch replied in a deposition.
“You don’t think that people listen to your voice?
“I think my influence over other publishers is — is greatly overestimated.”
“Do you think your influence within Fox is greatly overestimated?”
“By the outside world, yes.”
Even so, Murdoch winked at his real power. “Do you think when the chairman of Fox Corporation suggests content, people will listen to ·what you have to say?” he was asked. “I certainly hope so,” Murdoch replied.