The Recklessness of Rupert Murdoch

The Fox owner knew Donald Trump was lying and chose ratings over responsibility. What will it take to stop the dangerous propaganda?
Credit: World Economic Forum, via Wikimedia Commons
Published:March 7, 2023
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*Published with the generous permission of Steven Beschloss. Read all of his writing at his Substack, America, America.

How many billions in compensatory and punitive damages will it take before Fox boss Rupert Murdoch decides to stop his propagandists from spreading lies about election fraud and further poisoning American democracy? The $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems may not be the upper limit of what Fox faces should a jury decide to award the defendant punitive damages.

We’ve received fresh evidence this week in a Dominion court filing that Australian-born American citizen Murdoch recognized that his hosts knew they were lying. What would it take to stop the flow of poison? How much would it take to close down the whole operation? 

As of this date, Fox Corp. is valued at $18 billion. Would it be $4 billion? Or maybe $6 billion? What about $8 billion or $10 billion? 

Back in 2011 in Britain, in what now seems an almost quaint time, Rupert Murdoch shut down the News of the World, despite it being one of the oldest and most successful papers in the country and his first UK purchase made in 1969. This was after it came to light that the paper hacked and illegally eavesdropped on the phone messages of a 13-year-old murder victim, in addition to targets of suicide bombings, politicians and celebrities. A police investigation was said to identify nearly 4,000 potential victims.

In that case, Rupert’s son James Murdoch stated that the growing scandal "sullied" the newspaper and it had “no place in our company." James also said that he, his father and the company felt “regret” over the illegal behavior, and James noted that revenues from the paper’s final edition would go to “good causes.” Separately, Rupert insisted that the allegations reported were “deplorable and unacceptable.”
Clearly, amid the growing public fury and a flood of advertisers dropping out, the Murdochs did not want this holding to put at risk their other operations, including a bid then underway to take over UK broadcaster, BSkyB; this surely explained their decision to pull the plug on the 168-year-old paper that sold over 2.5 million copies every Sunday. We shouldn’t be naive enough to assume they were acting out of any more noble or ethical reason.

Which brings us back to Fox. Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham (to name just three) continue to spew their poison into the political bloodstream, despite their knowledge that they are feeding their millions of viewers lies. 

Keep in mind Carlson’s texted response to Hannity after learning that a Fox reporter had fact-checked Trump’s election lies: “Please get her fired. Seriously What the fuck? I’m actually shocked. It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down.” We have no reason to assume they’re going to change their money-obsessed tune without the demand of their ultimate boss, who still has shown no sign of stemming the pollution. 

How about $12 billion or $14 billion?

“What should the consequences be when Fox News executives knowingly allow lies to be broadcast?” Dominion lawyers asked Rupert in their deposition, parts of which were made public on Monday.

“They should be reprimanded,” Murdoch replied. “They should be reprimanded, maybe got rid of.”

Dominion: “You are aware now that Fox did more than simply host these guests and give them a platform; correct?”

Murdoch: “I think you've shown me some material in support of that.”

Yet, asked about Fox endorsing Trump’s lies, he was quick to differentiate Fox the corporation from its “commentators.”

Dominion: “In fact, you are now aware that Fox endorsed at times this false notion of a stolen election?” 

Murdoch: “Not Fox. No. Not Fox.” 

Murdoch was asked about hosts Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro and Sean Hannity. 

Dominion: “All were in that document; correct?”

Murdoch: “Yes, they were.” 

Dominion: “About Fox endorsing the narrative of a stolen election; correct?”

Murdoch: “No. Some of our commentators were endorsing it.” 

Dominion: “About their endorsement of a stolen election?” 

Murdoch: “Yes. They endorsed.”

Asked his own opinion, Fox’s owner didn’t hesitate admitting the facts. “Oh, yes,” he replied when asked if he “seriously doubted” any claim of massive election fraud. From the beginning? “Yes. I mean, we thought everything was on the up-and-up. I think that was shown when we announced Arizona.” He even acknowledged in the deposition that some of Trump’s election lies were “bullshit and damaging.” 

But back in December 2020, when Rupert and Co. heard that a furious Trump was not conceding and they were facing mounting viewer backlash for not supporting election denialism, they made a decision to keep feeding their viewers the Big Lie of election fraud. As the Dominion filing notes:

In short, [Fox News CEO] Suzanne Scott, Rupert and [Murdoch son] Lachlan made a decision. No more alienating Fox viewers. Instead of tamping down talk of conspiracy and Trump being a sore loser, they would allow Fox to air these ‘wild claims.’ Instead of completely rejecting the false notions of election fraud, Scott, Rupert and Lachlan doubled down. They were indeed OK with hosts going on air to undermine the election.”

The First Amendment, arguably the most sacred of the amendments for American democracy (except for the gun nuts), has made it nigh impossible to push back against Fox. In its defense in the Dominion case and others, Fox has insisted that it was just reporting on newsworthy statements and is not responsible for their truthfulness. 

“The public had a right to know, and Fox had a right to cover,” their lawyers claimed. As for the constant flow of guests spinning lies, like quasi-lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani and pillow guy Mike Lindell? They said this—as the 1964 New York Times Co. v. Sullivan case decided—is “part and parcel of the ‘uninhibited, robust and wide-open’ debate on matters of public concern.” It’s the argument that has worked over and over, at least when it’s been impossible to prove that the media organization has engaged in “actual malice” or the “reckless disregard of the truth.” 

The outcome of the Dominion case—and the $2.7 billion one by Smartmatic USA, another voting technology company—could not be more important. As Dominion lawyer Rodney Smolla put it, “I think we are at a time in U.S. history and world history of losing any ability as a civilization to distinguish between truth and falsity.” 

But such concerns will never sway the likes of Rupert Murdoch, who turns 92 next week and who could not possibly need another billion dollars to sustain his or his family’s lifestyle. I mean, how much money can a human need? This can only be a rhetorical question when a man like Murdoch is asked why he continued to put Mike Lindell on the air with Tucker Carlson, well knowing that Lindell was spreading baseless conspiracy theories. The decision, he said, “is not red or blue, it is green.”

I leave you with the comments from last year of former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull: Rupert Murdoch “is responsible for Fox News. Fox News has played, by far, the largest single part in the polarization of American politics, in the amplification of political hatred,” he said in an NPR interview. “I would challenge anyone...to nominate which individual alive today has done more to undermine American democracy than Rupert Murdoch."  

Turnbull offers a useful challenge. Many of us might have suggested that it was Trump who has done the most to undermine American democracy. But where would Trump be if Murdoch’s Fox refused to amplify his lies? 

Which begs the question that I posed at the top: How many billions in compensatory and punitive damages will it take before Rupert Murdoch decides to stop his propagandists from spreading lies about election fraud and further poisoning American democracy?