Court records show political pressure behind Fox’s programming

NEW YORK — In May 2018, the nation’s top Republicans needed help. So they called Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch.

President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were trying to block West Virginia Republicans from nominating Don Blankenship, who was convicted of violating mine safety standards during a fatal accident at one of his coal mines. to challenge incumbent state senator Democrat Joe. Manchin.

“Both Trump and McConnell are appealing for help to defeat the unelectable former mine owner who served a term,” Murdoch wrote to Fox News executives, according to court filings released this week. “Anything during the day is helpful, but Sean (Hannity) and Laura (Ingraham) throwing him hard can save the day.”

Murdoch’s incitement, revealed in court documents that are part of a defamation lawsuit by a voting systems company, is an example of how Fox has become actively involved in politics rather than merely reporting or offering opinions about it. The revelations pose a challenge to the credibility of America’s most-watched cable news network at the start of a new election season in which Trump is once again the star player, having declared his third bid for the White House.

Blankenship, who ended up losing the primary, said in an interview Wednesday that he felt the change immediately, with the network’s coverage taking a harder turn in the final hours before the primary.

“They were very smart about the election — they did the dumping the day before the election, so I didn’t have time to react,” said Blankenship, who filed a separate, unsuccessful defamation lawsuit against Fox.

On Wednesday, the network called Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit a blatant attack on the First Amendment and said the company had taken the statements out of context. According to Fox, that included an acknowledgment by Murdoch that he shared with Jared Kushner, Trump’s re-election campaign manager and the president’s son-in-law, an ad for Joe Biden’s presidential campaign that was to air on his network. Fox said the ad Murdoch pushed to Kushner was already publicly available on YouTube and on at least one television station.

“Dominion has again been caught red-handed using more distortions and misinformation in its public relations campaign to discredit Fox News and trample on free speech and freedom of the press,” Fox said in a statement.

Fox has long been seen as a force in GOP politics with its large conservative fan base. But thousands of pages of documents released this week in the libel suit filed by Dominion show how the network blurred the line between journalism and partisan politics. Dominion sued after becoming the target of 2020 election conspiracy theories, often promoted on Fox’s airwaves.

Murdoch also told Fox News executives to promote the benefits of Trump’s 2017 tax cut legislation and pay special attention to Republican Senate candidates, the documents show. He wanted the network to “battle” Biden’s low-profile presidential campaign during the height of the pandemic in 2020.

Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University history professor and author of “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” said the revelations in the lawsuit puncture Fox’s longstanding argument that there is a line between news and sides. of opinion.

“The real revelation here is how fantastic this division is,” Hemer said. “Some people who know Fox have suggested that for a while, but now we have real evidence.”

Hemer cited text messages revealed in court documents from early November 2020 sent by Fox’s chief political correspondent, Bret Baier, urging network leaders to recall the correct call on election night that President Joe Biden had won Arizona. Baier advocated putting Arizona back “in his column,” referring to Trump.

In the days after the election, as Trump made increasingly wild claims that cheating cost him the White House, Rupert Murdoch’s son, Lachlan Murdoch, who is executive chairman of Fox Corp., sent a message to the Fox chief executive. News, Susan Scott, concerned about Trump rally.

“The news guys need to be careful how they cover this rally,” Lachlan Murdoch wrote, according to the legal documents. “So far some of the side comments are slightly counterintuitive, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this massive celebration of the president. Etc.”

Some of Fox’s politicking — such as host Sean Hannity’s frequent conversations with Trump during his presidency — is well known. But court documents show how Rupert Murdoch, the boss, also got in on the act.

Murdoch emailed Scott in November 2017 and urged her to advance Trump’s tax cut proposal, which had passed the House and was nearing a Senate vote.

“Once they pass this bill, we have to tell our viewers over and over again what they’re going to get,” Murdoch wrote in the email, which is included in court records. “Great, I understand, for anything under $150k.”

After the first presidential debate in 2020, a “terrified” Murdoch told Kushner that Trump should be more reserved in the next debate. (Trump canceled that event.)

“This was advice from a friend to a friend,” Murdoch said in his deposition. “It was not advice from Fox Corporation or in my capacity at Fox.”

“What’s the difference?” asked Dominion attorney Justin A. Turner.

“You’ve gone — keep asking me questions as head of Fox,” Murdoch said. “It’s a different role to be a friend.”

Murdoch’s email banter with Kushner led to the exchange of the Biden ad, according to court filings. That exchange is now the subject of a complaint by the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America to the Federal Election Commission, alleging that Fox illegally contributed to the Trump campaign by giving it information on Biden ads. Fox said sharing public information cannot be considered a contribution.

Court records show that on September 25, 2020, Murdoch emailed Kushner that “people are telling me” that Biden’s ads “are much better creatively than yours. Just passing it on.”

That same month, Murdoch wondered in an email to Col Allan, the former editor of the Murdoch-owned New York Post, “how can anyone vote for Biden?” Allen responded that Biden’s only hope is to stay in his basement and not face serious questions.

“I was just making sure that Fox would address these issues,” Murdoch replied, according to court records. “If the public speaks, the issue will spread.”

Another prominent politician Murdoch describes as a “friend” is McConnell, whose wife, Elaine Chao, then Trump’s transportation secretary, served on Fox’s board. Murdoch said he would speak with the Republican Senate leader “three or four times a year.”

In a special 2017 Republican Senate primary in Alabama, Murdoch said in testimony that he told his top brass that, like McConnell, he opposed Roy Moore, a controversial former Alabama chief justice. Moore eventually won the party’s nomination, but lost the general election after he was credibly accused of sexual harassment, including pursuing relationships with teenagers when he was in his 30s. Moore denied the charges.

Murdoch, in the deposition, also cited his personal friendship with an unnamed Senate candidate in his suggestion to Scott that the network pay special attention to Republicans in close Senate races.

Days before the 2020 election, after Fox businessman Lou Dobbs criticized Sen. Lindsey Graham, RSC., Murdoch asked Scott to get Hannity to boost Graham, who was facing an extremely well-funded challenge from the Democrat Jamie Harrison.

“You probably know about Lou Dobbs’ outburst against Lindsay Graham,” Murdoch wrote on Oct. 27, misspelling the senator’s name in the copy of the message in court documents. “Could Sean say something supportive? We cannot lose the Senate if possible.”

Scott responded that Graham was on Hannity’s show the night before “and had a lot of time.” He added: “I addressed Dobbs’ outburst.”


Riccardi reported from Denver. Associated Press writers Christina A. Cassidy in Atlanta, Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix, Gary Fields in Washington and Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.

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