Experts: Murdoch testimony "guts" Fox's best defense — but he may set up top exec to "take the fall"

"I appointed Ms. Scott to the job … and I delegate everything to her," Murdoch said in his deposition

Published March 2, 2023 12:26PM (EST)

Rupert Murdoch (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)
Rupert Murdoch (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP via Getty Images)

Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch may have damaged the company's defense in Dominion Voting Systems' $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit — but some media analysts believe he is setting up Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott to "take the fall" in the case.

Murdoch's deposition admitting that some Fox News "endorsed" false claims about the election "guts" the network's best defense, CNN legal analyst Elie Honig argued on Wednesday. 

"Every day that it's on the air and continues to push some of the basis of what this defamation lawsuit's about, they do have legal liability and exposure," former federal prosecutor Laura Coates said on "The Situation Room."

Honig agreed that Murdoch's testimony "really guts what I think is the best potential defense here for Fox."

"Their defense – they've articulated this – is going to be, 'These were newsworthy comments by the then-president and his top advisers. We were simply reporting them,'" Honig said. "Now, Murdoch has admitted 'we' endorsed them, but he tried to draw this distinction between, 'Well, not we, Fox, but we, our top anchors.' But who is Fox News, who is any media corporation if not the voices of the top journalists and reporters?" 

Fox News has denied Dominion's allegations and accused the company of cherry-picking quotes to publicize in its filings. A spokesperson said Dominion has taken an "extreme, unsupported view of defamation law" to "publicly smear FOX for covering and commenting on allegations by a sitting President.

The voting machine company filed a brief last month citing internal communications in which Fox colleagues privately trashed the same debunked election fraud allegations they aired. Fox Corp., the parent company of Fox News, has sought to distance itself from the lawsuit, arguing that its executives were not directly involved in decisions to air the claims. Murdoch in his deposition suggested that the issue was Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott's responsibility.

Semafor editor-in-chief Ben Smith told CNN on Wednesday that the Murdochs "are certainly setting Suzanne Scott up to take the fall for this."

David Folkenflik, an NPR media correspondent and Murdoch biographer, added that "they're leaving a trail of crumbs that lead back to her office."

However, many media experts have argued that Murdoch is actually in charge of all major network decisions and acknowledged in his deposition that he regularly talks to Scott and likes to be "involved in these things."

"I'm a journalist at heart," Murdoch said, according to Dominion's filing.

This would not be the first time that Murdoch has made sacrificial lambs out of his colleagues. In 2016, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes faced allegations of sexual misconduct, and just one year later, star personality Bill O'Reilly faced his own sexual misconduct scandal. In both cases, Murdoch severed ties with top Fox personnel.

"His pattern has been to throw some money overboard and offer a head or two in the process to make it go away," one source who worked with Murdoch's team told CNN on Wednesday. 

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"Looking back to previous scandals, Murdoch and the companies have tended to try to pay early and quietly to make things go away, or they ignore them thinking they're so big they can ride things out," Folkenflik told the outlet. "And then when things really come to a head, they try to cauterize the wound at the lowest level possible."

"If he threw [Scott] over, he would only do it because he thought he needed to cauterize the wound before it goes higher," Folkenflik added. "That's his record. That's what he does. It can be editors. It can be executives. It can be stars. He's not throwing himself over the side."

Former New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg, who covered Murdoch, agreed that the media mogul "has a history of sacrificing loyal lieutenants."

"But he does it only in the most extreme circumstances," Rutenberg told CNN. "We know that he hates doing it. We know that he tends to try to fight for his loyalists, even for Ailes, certainly for O'Reilly. But when it's a necessity to overcome a real threat to his business, he'll do it."

"If you're Rupert, you can't fire Rupert. And you're not going to fire [Fox CEO] Lachlan [Murdoch] either," Folkenflik explained. "So who are you going to chop?"

"Everyone who takes a senior executive position under Rupert Murdoch knows that is the case, that is the ultimate fall position," Folkenflik added. "They understand that's part of the job. You're very well paid. It can be a somewhat glamorous life. If you fall out of favor with the sun king, or it is to his benefit, that's part of the equation."

By Samaa Khullar

Samaa Khullar is a former news fellow at Salon with a background in Middle Eastern history and politics. She is a graduate of New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism institute and is pursuing investigative reporting.

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Aggregate Fox News Politics Rupert Murdoch Suzanne Scott