Court records show political pressure behind Fox programming

Court records show political pressure behind Fox programming

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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 deadly accident at one of his coal mines. , to challenge incumbent state senator Democrat Joe. Manchin.

“Both Trump and McConnell are calling for help to defeat the unelected former mine owner who served time,” Murdoch wrote to Fox News anchors, according to court records released this week. “Anything that’s helpful during the day, but Sean (Hannity) and Laura (Ingraham) throwing it hard on him can save the day.”

The Murdoch push, revealed in court documents that are part of a defamation lawsuit by a voting systems company, is an example of how Fox became actively involved in politics rather than simply reporting or offering opinions about it. The revelations pose a challenge to the credibility of the most-watched US cable news network at the start of a new election season in which Trump is once again a major player, having announced his third run 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 sharper turn in the final hours before the election.

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

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

“Dominion has been caught again using more distortions and misinformation in their PR campaign to smear Fox News and violate free speech and freedom of the press,” Fox said in a statement.

Fox has long been seen as a powerhouse in GOP politics with her large conservative fan base. But thousands of pages of documents released this week in the defamation 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 the Fox airwaves.

Murdoch also told executives at Fox News to promote the benefits of Trump’s 2017 tax cut legislation and pay extra attention to Republican Senate candidates, the documents show. He wanted the network to “crash” 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 shatter Fox’s longstanding argument that there is a dividing line between the sides of the news. and her opinions.

“The real revelation here is how much of a fiction this division is,” Hemmer said. “Some who know Fox have argued this for some time, but now we have real evidence.”

Hemmer cited text messages disclosed in court documents from early November 2020 sent by Fox chief political correspondent Bret Baier asking network executives to retract the correct election night call that President Joe Biden won Arizona . Baier supported Arizona’s return “to his column,” referring to Trump.

In the days after the election, as Trump was making increasingly wild accusations that fraud cost him the White House, Rupert Murdoch’s son, Lachlan Murdoch, who is executive chairman of Fox Corp., texted the Fox News chief executive. Suzanne Scott on alert about a Trump rally.

“News guys should be careful how they cover this rally,” Lachlan Murdoch wrote, according to legal documents. “So far some of the side comments are a bit anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this big presidential party. etc.”

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

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

“Once they pass this bill, we have to show our viewers over and over again what they’re going to get,” Murdoch wrote in the email, included in court records. “Awesome, I see, for anyone under $150k.”

After the first presidential debate in 2020, a “horrified” 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 been — you continue to ask me questions as the 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 records. That exchange is now the subject of a complaint by the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America to the Federal Election Commission, arguing that Fox made an illegal contribution to the Trump campaign by providing information about Biden’s ads. Fox said sharing public information cannot be considered a contribution.

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

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 just made sure that Fox was bumped on these issues,” Murdoch replied, according to court records. “If the audience talks, the topic 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 to the Senate Republican leader “three or four times a year.”

In a 2017 Republican Senate special election in Alabama, Murdoch said in his deposition, he told his superiors that he, like McConnell, objected to Roy Moore, a controversial former Alabama chief justice. . Moore eventually won the party’s nomination but lost the general election after he was reliably accused of sexual misconduct, including pursuing relationships with teenagers when he was in his 30s. Moore denied the allegations.

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

Days before the 2020 election, after Fox business anchor Lou Dobbs was critical of Sen. Lindsey Graham, RSC, Murdoch asked Scott for Hannity to boost Graham, who was facing a heavily funded challenge from 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. “Can Sean say something supportive? We can’t lose the Senate if possible.”

Scott responded that Graham was on Hannity’s show last night “and he took up a lot of time.” She added, “I addressed the Dobbs explosion.”

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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