Fox News, the cable news channel and main revenue earner for Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corporation in the USA, is facing two separate billion dollar lawsuits from voting technology businesses that allege they were defamed by Fox during the 2020 presidential election.
Dominion Voting Inc, a voting machine manufacturer based in Denver, Colorado, provided equipment for vote counting in almost half the US states and is claiming $1.6bn in damages. Smartmatic, from Boca Rotan, Florida, is seeking $2.7bn.
Both companies are also suing Newsmax on similar grounds. Newsmax is a far-right news and digital media company whose former chairman was Lord Rees-Mogg, father of Jacob, MP for Somerset North and ex cabinet minister.
Dominion launched its initial case in March 2021 alleging that Fox “endorsed, repeated, and broadcast a series of verifiably false yet devastating lies about Dominion”. It’s due to go to trial in April this year.
The alleged defamations
What the company said were “outlandish, defamatory, and far-fetched fictions” included Fox claiming that Dominion rigged the 2020 presidential election, manipulated vote counts in favour of Joe Biden, was owned by a company founded in Venezuela to rig elections for dictator Hugo Chávez, and paid kickbacks to US government officials.
In December 2022 a judge in Delaware ruled against Fox’s bid to have the case summarily dismissed and declared it should go to trial. This enabled lawyers for Dominion to apply for access to internal Fox communications that took place during and after the 2020 presidential election. Thousands of documents have now been produced by both sides with more to come.
A 192-page filing last week revealed the extent to which Fox executives, producers and household-name programme hosts knowingly broadcast what Dominion says were “lies” that they [Fox] knew to be “crazy, absurd and shockingly reckless”.
Election night, troubles start
The 2020 United States presidential election was held on Tuesday 3 November 2020. Fox’s problems began when they (and AP) decided to call Arizona for Biden late on election night when the Democrat was nine points ahead in a state his party hadn’t won in over 20 years. Other major networks held back for several more days.
Fox’s early prediction, although correct, triggered a furious response from the Trump White House and a backlash from the channel’s largely Republican viewers. Their audience share fell while the figures for Fox’s smaller rival (and even more pro-Trump) Newsmax increased.
Fox hoped the backlash would fade, but on 7 November when they called the election for Biden (this time waiting until other networks went first) it only got worse. Murdoch wrote to Suzanne Scott, Fox News CEO, that they were “getting creamed by CNN! Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it”. Fox senior vice president for corporate communications Irena Briganti wrote on the evening of 7 November, “our viewers left this week after AZ [Arizona]”.
According to the filing, Fox then went on a “war footing” to repair the damage, caring more about protecting its own ratings than about the truth. Fox News vice president Bill Sammon is quoted saying: “It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things.”
Dominion say the consequences to them and democracy didn’t matter.
One of the people peddling false claims about voter fraud was Sidney Powell, an attorney and former federal prosecutor who joined the legal team of then-President Donald Trump in 2020.
Fox host Maria Bartiromo interviewed Powell on 8 November where Powell said, “computer glitches could not and should not have happened at all. That is where the fraud took place, where they were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist”.
Powell appeared multiple times on Fox programmes where she continued to promote what Dominion’s legal team says was “an inherently implausible conspiracy theory designed to perpetuate the myth that Donald Trump and not Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 Presidential Election” – with Dominion’s voting machines at the centre of it.
Powell claimed her information came via an email entitled ‘Election Fraud Info’ from an anonymous “source” – in which the author describes herself as pretty “wackadoodle”.
The sender claimed Murdoch secretly huddled “most days” with former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes, a man who passed away in 2017, in order to discredit Trump. Additionally, the email stated, “Who am I? And how do 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”.
The filing says the “full force of the email’s lunacy comes across by reading it in its entirety”.
Trump’s legal team distanced itself from Powell, though she continued to meet with Trump in the White House and continued to file election lawsuits independently in various district courts. Ultimately, she lost four federal lawsuits in Michigan, Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin.
Fox continued to push the conspiracy theory
Right up to inauguration day, Fox continued to give airtime to these bizarre conspiracy theories despite masses of publicly available evidence to the contrary from state officials and manual recounts.
For example, on 9 November 2020, Maricopa County in Arizona completed a hand count audit that confirmed the election’s results. A letter to Maricopa voters dated 17 November by the chair of the Maricopa board of supervisors advised that the hand recount “yielded a 100 percent match to the results produced by the tabulation equipment”. The following day, Maricopa held its post-election logic and accuracy test, which again showed that Dominion’s tabulation machines had operated properly.
From 12 November Dominion began to send Fox ‘Setting the Record Straight’ emails providing facts about Dominion and links to public information debunking the lies about itself. Fox News’s corporate representative, executive VP and managing editor of news Tom Lowell, testified that in the months following the election various Fox personnel received over 3,600 such communications from Dominion correcting false allegations, which were also circulated widely within Fox.
In the face of all of this, Fox is said to have continued to broadcast lies about Dominion as it nervously eyed its rival Newsmax.
Even as late as 5 January, Murdoch was still only tentatively suggesting to Scott that Fox’s “prime time three [hosts] should independently or together say something like the election is over and Joe Biden won, and that such a statement would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election stolen [sic].” It was a myth that Fox itself had been actively encouraging for two months.
Scott forwarded this email to Meade Cooper, Fox News executive VP for primetime programming, with the message that “I told Rupert […] we need to be careful about using the shows and pissing off the viewers but they know how to navigate”.
Yet, even though there was this explicit internal recognition that the election was over, Fox are said to have continued publicly defaming Dominion. To the day the filing was published (16 February 2023) Fox has never retracted the false statements it broadcast about Dominion.
What did Fox know?
The court filing claims Fox, “Knew the truth. It knew the allegations against Dominion were outlandish and crazy and ludicrous and nuts. Yet it used the power and influence of its platform to promote that false story. Fox knew better. As Rupert Murdoch told Suzanne Scott in the aftermath of January 6, ‘All very well for Sean [Hannity] to tell you he was in despair about Trump but what did he tell his viewers?’”
At one point Murdoch asked Scott whether it was “unarguable that high-profile Fox voices fed the story that the election was stolen and that January 6 an important chance to have the results overturned?” Fox executives provided 50 examples.
From the top down, Dominion’s lawyers say, Fox “knew the dominion stuff was total bs. Yet despite knowing the truth or at minimum, recklessly disregarding that truth Fox spread and endorsed these ‘outlandish voter fraud’ claims about Dominion even as it internally recognized the lies as ‘crazy,’ ‘absurd,’ and ‘shockingly reckless’”.
What Fox employees were telling each other
Dominion’s document provides a number of quotes from hosts who fronted Fox’s news programmes which make fascinating reading:
- “Sidney Powell is lying.” Tucker Carlson to his producer Alex Pfeiffer, 16 November 2020
- “Sidney Powell is a bit nuts. Sorry but she is.” Laura Ingraham to Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, 15 November 2020
- “Really crazy stuff.” Rupert Murdoch, 19 November 2020
- “It’s dangerously insane these conspiracy theories.” Fox reporter Lucas Tomlinson to Bret Baier, Fox’s Chief Political Correspondent, 1 December 2020
- “Incorrect and not evidence of widespread fraud.” Fox’s internal fact checks regarding the Dominion allegations, 13 and 20 November 2020
- “That whole narrative that Sidney was pushing. I did not believe it for one second.” Sean Hannity
- “No reasonable person would have thought that.” Fox Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt, on whether the allegation that Dominion rigged the election was true
In testimony obtained by Dominion’s legal team, not a single Fox witness stated that they believed any of the allegations about Dominion were true. Many declined to assert the allegations truth or actually stated they didn’t believe them, and repeatedly testified that they have not seen credible evidence to support them.
Fox’s corporate representative Tom Lowell testified that Powell never provided Fox with evidence of her claims. Lowell could not point to any evidence to support the claim that Dominion rigged the election.
From left to right: Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Bret Baier, and Tucker Carlson
Fox viewers ‘good people’
The document reveals the contempt Fox News anchors had for their own audience, beyond being cash cows by generating advertising revenue. Instead of reporting news as truthfully as possible they fed the prejudices of their viewers, mainly Trump supporters who accepted the then president’s claims of widespread voter fraud and insane conspiracy theories and wanted confirmation.
On 18 November, Tucker Carlson told his colleague, Laura Ingraham: “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane.” Ingraham responded: “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy [Giuliani]. Carlson then replied: “It’s unbelievably offensive to me. Our viewers are good people and they believe it.”
Fox viewers may be good people, but not good enough apparently to be entrusted with the truth.
It’s clear that Fox were not interested in providing honest reporting and analysis of current events but only in growing the audience by amplifying and reflecting the crazed theories of various right-wing Trump supporting fantasists.
There is no date set at the moment for Smartmatic’s lawsuit to go to trial.