By Jack Queen, Helen Coster and Dawn Chmielewski
(Reuters) -Fox Corp Chairman Rupert Murdoch said that hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham maybe “went too far” in their coverage of voter fraud claims, according to an email in a trove of exhibits in Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox unsealed on Tuesday.
Dominion sued Fox News Networks for $1.6 billion in 2021, accusing the cable TV network of amplifying debunked claims that Dominion voting machines were used to rig the election against Republican Donald Trump and in favor of his rival Joe Biden, who won the election.
The reams of documents that became public on Tuesday offer a window into Fox’s internal deliberations as it covered the 2020 presidential election, alienating some viewers by being the first network to project that Biden would win the crucial state of Arizona.
The documents show top executives down to show-level producers and hosts discussing concerns about the network’s reputation and casting doubt on the plausibility of Trump’s claims of election fraud.
More than 6,500 pages were released on Tuesday, although the full extent of the evidence is not clear as many filings are heavily redacted.
Fox has defended its coverage, arguing claims by Trump and his lawyers were inherently newsworthy and protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The network said in a statement the documents show Dominion using “distortions and misinformation” to “smear Fox News and trample on free speech.”
The unsealed exhibits contain evidence underlying both parties’ dueling motions for summary judgment, filed last month, in which they seek rulings in their favor to avert a trial.
In one exhibit, Murdoch emailed Fox News President Suzanne Scott on Jan. 21, 2021, asking: “Is it ‘unarguable that high profile Fox voices fed the story that the election was stolen and that January 6th an important chance to have the result overturned’? Maybe Sean and Laura went too far. All very well for Sean to tell you he was in despair about Trump but what did he tell his viewers?”
In an earlier exchange with Scott, Murdoch wrote that it had been suggested to him that the network’s primetime hosts say something like “the election is over and Joe Biden won,” according to Tuesday’s filings. Murdoch told Scott that some version of this would “go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election stolen.”
According to Dominion’s unsealed filings, Murdoch emailed a friend that the notion state legislators could change the election outcome – an idea then gaining traction on the right – “sound ridiculous. There’d be riots like never before.”
“Stupid and damaging,” Murdoch continued, referring to a news conference by then-Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. “The only one encouraging Trump and misleading him. Both increasingly mad. The real danger is what he might do as president.”
These exhibits and other material included in Dominion’s summary judgment motion are part of the voting machine company’s effort to prove the network either knew the statements it aired were false or recklessly disregarded their accuracy. That is the standard of “actual malice,” which public figures must prove to prevail in a defamation case.
Fox has said that Dominion’s “extreme” interpretation of defamation law would “stop the media in its tracks” and chill freedom of the press.
Fox’s exhibits include more context of testimony and messages that it says Dominion “cherry-picked” and “misrepresented” in its summary judgment filing.
For example, Fox cites additional testimony by Fox Corp co-chairman and CEO Lachlan Murdoch, who said under oath that he was “concerned” but “not overly concerned” by declining ratings after the election.
Dominion has alleged Fox continued to push the stolen election narrative because it was losing viewers to right-wing outlets that embraced it.
In another exhibit, Fox News host Hannity – quoted by Dominion as saying he “did not believe” Trump lawyer Sidney Powell’s claims “for one second” during a deposition – went on to say that during the interview he was giving her time to produce evidence but stopped having her appear on-air after she failed to deliver.
A Dominion spokesperson said in a statement that the “emails, texts, and deposition testimony speak for themselves. We welcome all scrutiny of our evidence because it all leads to the same place – Fox knowingly spread lies causing enormous damage to an American company.”
The trial, set to begin on April 17, is slated to last five weeks.
(Reporting by Jack Queen and Helen Coster in New York; Additional reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles; Editing by Stephen Coates and Noeleen Walder)