By NICHOLAS RICCARDI and DAVID BAUDER
NEW YORK (AP) — In May 2018, the country’s leading Republicans needed help. So they called the founder of Fox News, Rupert Murdoch.
President Donald Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were trying to prevent West Virginia Republicans from nominating Don Blankenship, who had been convicted of violate mine safety regulations during a fatal accident at one of his coal mines, to challenge the incumbent state senator, Democrat Joe Manchin.
“Both Trump and McConnell are asking for help in defeating the ineligible former mine owner who served time,” Murdoch wrote to Fox News executives, according to court records released this week. “Anything during the day is useful, but Sean (Hannity) and Laura (Ingraham) pulling hard on him could save the day.”
Murdoch’s insistence, revealed in court documents that are part of a defamation lawsuit brought 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 cable newscasts in the US at the start of a new election season in which Trump is once again a major player, after having declared his third candidacy 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 undid the day before the election, so I didn’t have time to react,” said Blankenship, who filed a separate and unsuccessful defamation lawsuit 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 statements out of context. According to Fox, that included an acknowledgment from Murdoch that he shared with Jared Kushner, the head of Trump’s re-election campaign and the president’s son-in-law, a Joe Biden presidential campaign ad that would air on his network. Fox said the ad Murdoch sent to Kushner was already publicly available on YouTube and on at least one television station.
“Dominion has again been caught red-handed using further distortions and misinformation in its public relations campaign to smear Fox News and trample on free speech and press freedom,” Fox said in a statement.
Fox has long been seen as a powerhouse in Republican politics with his large conservative fan base. But thousands of pages of documents published this week in the defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion show how the web blurred the line between journalism and party politics. Dominion sued after becoming the target of 2020 election conspiracy theories often promoted on Fox airwaves.
Murdock he also told Fox News executives to promote the benefits of Trump’s 2017 tax cut legislation and pay extra attention to Republican Senate hopefuls, the documents show. He wanted the network to “hit” Biden’s low-profile presidential campaign during the height of the pandemic in 2020.
Nicole Hemmer, a Vanderbilt University history professor and author of the book “Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s,” said the disclosures in the lawsuit break Fox’s longstanding argument that there is a dividing line between your news and opinions.
“The real eye opener here is how fictional that division is,” Hemmer said. “Some of those who know Fox have argued that for a while, but now we have real evidence.”
Hemmer cited text messages revealed in early November 2020 court documents sent by Fox’s top political correspondent Bret Baier urging network leaders to retract their correct election night call that the President Joe Biden won Arizona. Baier advocated putting Arizona “back in his column,” referring to Trump.
In the days after the election, as Trump made increasingly wild accusations that fraud cost him the White House, Rupert Murdoch’s son, Lachlan Murdoch, who is chief executive of Fox Corp., sent a text message to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, alarmed by a Trump rally.
“Journalists 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 anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this big celebration of the president. Etc.”
Some of Fox’s politicking, such as star 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 action.
Murdoch emailed Scott in November 2017 urging her to promote Trump’s tax cut proposal, which had passed the House and was about to be voted on by the Senate.
“Once this bill is passed, we need to tell our viewers over and over again what they will get,” Murdoch wrote in the email, included in court records. “Great, I understand, for anything under $150k.”
After the first presidential debate in 2020, a “horrified” Murdoch told Kushner that Trump should be more restrained in the upcoming debate. (Trump canceled that event.)
“That was advice from a friend to a friend,” Murdoch said in his statement. “It was not advice from Fox Corporation or my ability at Fox.”
“What is the difference?” asked Dominion’s attorney, Justin A. Turner.
“You’ve been, keep asking 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 giving him information about Biden’s ads. Fox said that the sharing of public information cannot be considered a contribution.
Court records show that on September 25, 2020, Murdoch emailed Kushner saying that “my people tell me” that Biden’s ads “are so much better creatively than his. Just passing it on.”
The same month, Murdoch wondered in an email to Col Allan, a former editor at the Murdoch-owned New York Post, “how can anyone vote for Biden?” Allen responded that Biden’s “only hope is to stay in her basement and not face serious questions.”
“I just made sure Fox talked about these issues,” Murdoch responded, 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, had been a member of the Fox board of directors. Murdoch said he would speak to the Senate Republican leader “three or four times a year”.
In a special 2017 Republican Senate primary in Alabama, Murdoch said in his statement that he told his top executives that he, like McConnell, opposed Roy Moore, a controversial former Chief Justice of Alabama. Moore ultimately won the party’s nomination, but lost the general election after he was credibly accused of sexual misconduct, including seeking relationships with teenagers when he was 30. Moore denied the allegations.
Murdoch, in the statement, also cited his personal friendship with an anonymous Senate candidate in his suggestion to Scott that the network pay extra attention to Republicans in tight Senate races.
Days before the 2020 election, after Fox business host Lou Dobbs criticized Sen. Lindsey Graham, RS.C., Murdoch asked Scott to have Hannity cheer on Graham, who was facing a challenge. extremely well funded by Democrat Jamie Harrison.
“You probably know about the Lou Dobbs outburst against Lindsay Graham,” Murdoch wrote on October 27, misspelling the senator’s name on the copy of the message in the court documents. “Could Sean say some support? We cannot lose the Senate if possible.”
Scott responded that Graham was on Hannity’s show the night before “and had plenty of time.” She added: “I headed into 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.