Rupert Murdoch took a direct role in how Fox News finally called the 2020 US election for Joe Biden over Donald Trump, newly unredacted messages in Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6bn defamation case showed on Friday.
“It would be great if we call it for Biden as soon as he gets over, say, 35,000 ahead in Pennsylvania,” Murdoch, the now 92-year-old Fox News owner, wrote to the network’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, on November 6, 2020, three days after election day but a day before Pennsylvania put Biden over the top.
“Whenever we do it, it will all be over. Regardless of Arizona.”
Fox News’ election night call of Arizona for Biden took most observers by surprise and enraged Trump and his followers.
Trump’s attempts to have the call accepted are well documented. The author Michael Wolff, for one, reported that when told of the outgoing president’s fury over Arizona, Murdoch responded with a “signature grunt” and said: “Fuck him.”
Fox News denies that. But Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, wrote in his memoir that Murdoch told him on election night that “the numbers are ironclad – it’s not even close”.
In his emails to Scott revealed on Friday, however, Murdoch pointed to Trump’s commitment to his lie about large-scale electoral fraud and Fox News’ accommodation of it when he said that on “second thoughts” the network should “maybe” call the election when Biden was up by “50,000 in Pennsylvania” but also said the call was “subject to litigation”.
Fox in the end called Pennsylvania for Biden 10 minutes after other networks, when he was a little under 35,000 votes ahead of Trump in the state.
The anchor Martha MacCallum told viewers: “Keep in mind the Trump campaign is in the midst of waging legal challenges in several states. But the path is clear for the new president-elect.”
In emails to Scott, Murdoch also said the Fox News contributor and Wall Street Journal editor Paul Gigot thought such a call “won’t change Trump”.
“But he’s got to get some real evidence,” wrote Murdoch, adding: “The fact that Rudy is advising really bad!”
Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor who became Trump’s personal lawyer, pushed the outlandish claims of voter fraud at the heart of Dominion’s case.
Dominion must prove Fox News hosts and executives broadcast such claims while knowing they were untrue. Filings have shown how hosts including the primetime stars Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham bemoaned Trump’s lie as their network continued to broadcast it.
In the filings released on Friday, a top producer for Jeanine Pirro’s show of 21 November 2020 told a senior executive: “She is refusing to drastically change the opening despite the fact-check.”
The executive replied: “Understood.”
In that opening, Pirro complained about Democrats’ handling of the investigation of Russian election interference in 2016 and said: “Never, ever, not once did we see a scintilla of evidence. Never.”
She then described the Dominion conspiracy theory, involving Venezuelan influence and Cuban money, which she still called “serious allegations” based on “sworn statements of factual allegations”. Giuliani, she said, had “made clear that Democrat cities were targeted by crooked Democrats who stole votes”.
The filings on Friday also contained more evidence that Fox executives worried their core audience, refusing to believe Trump lost and attracted by such claims of fraud, would desert the network.
In an email on November 11, Scott told producers there was “intense anger over our AZ call” among Fox News viewers.
“A trust has been broken,” he wrote, “and it’s our job to help them through this to the other side with strong reporting, investigative pieces and certainly speaking to the audience with respect is critical.”
On 13 November, Fox Corporation senior vice-president Raj Shah wrote in a memo to Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch’s son: “Fox News is facing a brand crisis, with viewers upset and online activists in open revolt of Fox’s handling of election night coverage last week and certain programming decisions since.”
He added: “This will not simply fade on its own for weeks or months and poses lasting damage to the Fox News brand unless effectively addressed soon.”
Fox News contends that Dominion is using “cherrypicked quotes without context to generate headlines”, and that viewers who broadcast newsworthy allegations would have reasonable understanding but were not factual statements.
Claiming “the foundational right to a free press is at stake”, Fox said it “will continue to fiercely advocate for the first amendment in protecting the role of news organizations to cover the news”.