Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch said in a deposition in an already-explosive defamation case against his company’s top business, Fox News, that “some of our commentators were endorsing” a series of claims that the 2020 election was stolen from former President Donald Trump, the latest revelation that suggests Fox executives could have been aware that some of the company’s hosts were pushing baseless assertions.
Dominion 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 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.
Dominion raised eyebrows last week when it released testimony and a series of internal text messages and emails that showed Fox News on-air personalities and Fox Corp, executives privately expressing disbelief about a series of fraudulent claims by former President Donald Trump and some of his associates that he had been cheated out of a victory in the 2020 presidential election. In some of the quotes, Fox News anchors appear worries about the effect President Joe Biden’s victory might have on the economics of Fox News Channel, perhaps the biggest contributor of cash flow and profit to its parent company.
“Dominion’s lawsuit has always been more about what will generate headlines than what can withstand legal and factual scrutiny,” Fox said in a statement Monday, suggesting that Dominion’s “summary judgment motion took an extreme, unsupported view of defamation law that would prevent journalists from basic reporting and their efforts to publicly smear Fox for covering and commenting on allegations by a sitting President of the United States should be recognized for what it is: a blatant violation of the First Amendment.”
In a new filing, which urges the court to ignore Fox’s own plea for summary judgement, Dominion revealed a deposition from Rupert Murdoch in which he said “some of our commentators were endorsing” claims about the 2020 election being rigged. Murdoch was asked, for example, if Jeanine Pirro, an opinion host, endorsed the claims, and replied, “I think so.” He also said Lou Dobbs, a former Fox Business opinion host, endorsed the false claims “a lot,” and that veteran commentator Sean Hannity endorsed the claims “a bit.”
Asked in the deposition if Asked by Dominion’s lawyer, Justin Nelson, whether he could have ordered Fox News to keep Trump surrogates like Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, who were instrumental in promoting election conspiracy theories, off of its programs, Murdoch said: “I could have. But I didn’t.” according to Dominion’s filing.
For its part, Fox made the case that most of the dialogue and testimony Dominion had collected “is utterly irrelevant to the legal issues in this case. Dominion’s focus on such irrelevant evidence demonstrates that it is more interested in headlines than law or fact.”
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 actual trial.
“Dominion is a strong believer in the First Amendment and its protections,” Dominion said in a statement. “As long-settled law makes clear, the First Amendment does not shield broadcasters that knowingly or recklessly spread lies.”
Damages sought in the case are significant, and other news companies have been hurt by defamation suits. Walt Disney’s ABC News in 2017 grappled with a $1.9 billion lawsuit from a South Dakota meat producer that alleged the news operation defamed Beef Products Inc. about the safety of low-cost processed beef trimmings referred to in a report as “pink slime.” Disney subsequently disclosed costs of $177 million related to the settlement of the case.
“The Dominion lawsuits against the Company and its subsidiary, Fox News Media, have been consolidated for trial, which is scheduled to begin in April 2023. The Company believes these lawsuits, including the Smartmatic and Dominion matters, are without merit and intends to defend against them vigorously, including through any appeals,” Fox Corp. said in filing earlier this month with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. “To date, none of the amounts the Company has paid in settlements of defamation or disparagement claims or reserved for pending or future claims is material, individually or in the aggregate, to the Company. The amount of additional liability, if any, that may result from these or related matters cannot be estimated at this time. However, the Company does not currently anticipate that the ultimate resolution of any such pending matters will have a material adverse effect on its business, financial condition, results of operations or cash flows.” Fox had approximately $4.06 billion in cash on hand at the end of its fiscal fourth quarter, according to the filing.