Texts: Murdoch and Fox hosts knew election claims were “crazy” but worried facts hurt “stock price”

Court filing shows Fox Newsers knew Trump lost but desperately did not want to anger him out of concern for ratings

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published February 17, 2023 9:19AM (EST)

Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Top Fox News executives and hosts privately trashed the false election claims they aired but worried that fact-checking TrumpWorld's lies would hurt their "stock price" and anger former President Donald Trump, according to texts and emails cited in a bombshell court filing by Dominion Voting Systems, which filed a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against the network.

"Sidney Powell is lying," host Tucker Carlson told his producer Alex Pfeiffer after an interview with the Trump-allied attorney, according to the filing, calling her a "fucking bitch."

Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch referred to claims peddled by Powell, who baselessly alleged that Dominion voting machines "flipped" votes from Trump to President Joe Biden, were "terrible stuff damaging everybody."

"Really crazy stuff," he wrote in an email to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott of claims pushed by Powell and former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, adding that it was "very hard to credibly claim foul everywhere."

"Fact that Rudy advising [Trump] really bad," Murdoch wrote, according to the filing.

Hosts also hit out at Giuliani, with Laura Ingraham referring to him as "such an idiot" and Sean Hannity lamenting that he was "acting like an insane person" following a disastrous press conference about the widely debunked fraud claims.

Executives and producers also expressed concerns about claims pushed by host Jeanine Pirro, going as far as canceling one of her episodes over concerns that "her guests are all going to say the election is being stolen." Fox News producer Justin Wells said that the episode was cancelled because "she was being crazy," according to the filing.

The texts were part of a nearly 200-page filing by Dominion in Delaware Superior Court ahead of a trial scheduled for April.

"Not a single Fox witness testified that they believe any of the allegations about Dominion are true," Dominion argued in the filing. "Indeed, Fox witness after Fox witness declined to assert the allegations' truth or actually stated they do not believe them, and Fox witnesses repeatedly testified that they have not seen credible evidence to support them."

But even as they privately acknowledged that the claims pushed by Trump's allies were false, Fox News hosts schemed to get a reporter fired for fact-checking the lies and expressed concerns that exposing their viewers to facts about the election outcome was hurting the network's "stock price."

Carlson and Hannity fumed after reporter Jacqui Heinrich tweeted that "top election infrastructure officials" confirmed that "there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised."

Carlson texted Hannity demanding that Heinrich be fired, according to the filing.

"Please get her fired," he wrote. "Seriously… What the fuck? I'm actually shocked… It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It's measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke."

Hannity reached out to Scott about the report. Scott told Fox News executives Jay Wallace and Irena Briganti that Hannity was "not happy" about the fact-check and said Heinrich had "serious nerve doing this," worrying that viewers would be "disgusted," according to the filing. Heinrich soon deleted her tweet.

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Fox executives also expressed worries after host Neil Cavuto cut away from a White House press conference in which then-press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, who now works at Fox, pushed false election claims. Executives described Cavuto's pushback as a "brand threat."

Hosts also expressed concern that fact-checking the false election claims would anger Trump and potentially send viewers flocking to the far-right outlet Newsmax.

"He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong," Carlson wrote to Pfeiffer, referring to Trump in another message as a "demonic force, a destroyer."

Carlson and Hannity fretted that pushback on Trump threatened to hurt their ratings.

"The network is being rejected," Carlson wrote to Hannity and Ingraham. "I've heard from angry viewers every hour of the day all weekend, including at dinner."

"Same same same," Hannity replied. "Never before has this ever happened."

Murdoch also worried about competition from Newsmax, writing in an email to Scott that they "should be watched, if skeptically."

He also expressed concerns about angering Trump and hurting the Republican Party's chances in the January 2021 U.S. Senate run-off elections.

"We should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can," Murdoch wrote. "We don't want to antagonize Trump further, but Giuliani taken with a large grain of salt. Everything at stake here."

By January 5, 2021, Murdoch was in full damage control mode, suggesting to Scott that Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham should go on the air to refute the false election claims.

"It's been suggested our prime time three should independently or together say something like 'the election is over and Joe Biden won,'" Murdoch wrote, adding that such a statement would "go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election was stolen."

Scott forwarded the email to another executive, expressing concern about "pissing off the viewers" with such a statement.

"Despite the internal recognition that the election was over, Fox did not retract its claims about Dominion," the court filing said. "Instead, it kept defaming Dominion. To this day, Fox has never retracted the false statements it broadcast about Dominion."

Fox News pushed back on the filing.

"Dominion has mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context, and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law," a Fox News spokesperson told NPR.

"There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners," Fox News said in a statement. "The core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v. Sullivan."

Fox in a counterclaim alleged that Dominion's $1.6 billion demand has "no factual support," arguing that despite the months-long TrumpWorld smear campaign, the company is "in a solid financial position," according to The Washington Post.

Fox attorneys argued in a brief that the network showed no "actual malice" because hosts that allowed false claims to be aired believed there was a chance the election might have been stolen.

"It is hardly unusual that some people in a newsroom (with the diverse political viewpoints one would expect) will disbelieve the allegations and hope that they ultimately prove false," Fox's lawyers wrote, "while others will keep an open mind in hopes that they prove true."

One section of Dominion's filing cited the bizarre source of one of the conspiracy theories aired by the network. Days after the 2020 election, host Maria Bartiromo interviewed Powell, knowing she would "respond with conspiracy theories about Dominion," according to the filing.

The evidence came from a "source" in an email who pushed the Dominion conspiracy theory while also espousing a number of other bizarre claims.

The sender claimed that late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia "was purposefully killed at the annual Bohemian Grove camp… during a weeklong human hunting expedition," and that former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (who has been dead for years) and Murdoch "secretly huddle most days to determine how best to portray Mr. Trump as badly as possible."

"Who am I?" the source wrote. "And how do I know all of this?... I've had the strangest dreams since I was a little girl… I was internally decapitated, and yet, I live… The Wind tells me I'm a ghost, but I don't believe it."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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