Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch instructed Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott to rein in critical coverage of then-President Donald Trump in the days after the 2020 election, according to a newly released filing in Dominion Election System’s ongoing defamation lawsuit against the network. The case has already revealed that the network — including Fox Corp. Chair Rupert Murdoch — knew Trump’s lawyers’ election fraud claims were false, but continued to endorse and spread them regardless.
The latest information comes from Dominion’s opposition to Fox’s motion for summary judgment, which includes previously unknown details about Lachlan Murdoch’s role in shaping Fox News’ post-election coverage of Trump. On November 14, 2020, Trump supporters rallied in Washington, D.C., as part of what was then a growing “Stop the Steal” movement, premised on the false conspiracy theory that the election had been stolen from Trump.
What was becoming obvious at the time — and what is now crystal clear in retrospect — is that the November 14 event served as a dry run for what would ultimately culminate in Trump’s attempted coup on January 6, 2021. Extremist groups, including the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, and the Proud Boys attended the event, which was crucial in cementing the false narrative among Trump supporters that the former president was the rightful winner of the election. By the end of the rally, 20 people had been arrested and one had been stabbed in what The Washington Post referred to as a night-time “melee.”
The Oath Keepers and Proud Boys would go on to play key roles in the attempted coup less than two months later. Five Oath Keepers would eventually be convicted of sedition for their roles in the plot, and five Proud Boys, including leader Enrique Tarrio, are currently on trial for their actions related to the insurrection.
In short, the filing makes plain that Lachlan Murdoch’s instincts were to protect and defend Trump, even as he and his supporters were telegraphing future acts of fascistic violence. Rupert Murdoch knew that his media empire could intervene prior to the insurrection to stop the lies his network was pushing, but he chose to do nothing. Similarly, Lachlan’s directives on the day of the proto-coup made the events of January 6, 2021, all the more likely.
"News guys have to be careful how they cover this rally. So far some of the side comments are slightly anti, and they shouldn’t be,” Lachlan told Scott during coverage of the event. “The narrative should be this is a huge celebration of the president.”
“Yes thanks,” Scott responded.
Lachlan then criticized then-Fox News anchor Leland Vittert’s coverage as "[s]mug and obnoxious," to which Scott responded she was “calling now” to tell Vittert’s producer to address the issue.
Scott apparently also passed the comment along to President of Fox News Jay Wallace, who then communicated it to Fox executive David Clark.
“Also got called by Jay who heard from SS that Leland was being smug and condescending,” Clark said. “I texted him and told him to cut it out and DC EP spoke to him.” (“DC EP” likely refers to Fox News’ executive producer in Washington, D.C., but the filing doesn’t specify exactly whom Clark was referring to.)
Lachlan even gave granular direction regarding the news ticker along the bottom of the screen. “Just FYI to discuss tomorrow, the ticker at bottom of screen is all wrong,” Lachlan told Scott. “Way too wordy and long. And anti trump whenever possible.”
These pro-Trump editorial instructions from Lachlan show that the network was attempting to remain on the outgoing president’s good side — and refrain from losing its audience to competitor Newsmax — even as the network knew the results were legitimate. As a result, there was some inconsistency in the network’s approach to Trump’s extralegal attempts to stay in power, a balancing act reflected in Vittert’s coverage of the November 14 rally.
Vittert discussed the so-called Stop the Steal event with an on-scene correspondent and a Trump spokesperson, and offered mild but truthful pushback against the stolen-election narrative.
“What do these folks want? I get the ‘Stop the Steal,’ but what’s the second half of the question?” Vittert asked correspondent Rich Edson. “It seems reasonable people can agree that it’s more than likely that Joe Biden is going to be inaugurated president on January 20. Is it that they really believe that there’s a chance President Trump gets a second term or are they more just trying to complain that things aren’t fair?”
“Uh, yes,” Edson responded, to Vittert’s amusement.
Vittert closed the segment by suggesting that many of the Trump supporters were not from D.C., inverting the trope of the so-called outside agitator, frequently invoked against social justice activists.
“See if you can see where some of these folks are from,” Vittert concluded. “Ninety-two, 93 percent of the D.C. area voted for President Trump, so a lot of folks in from out of town.” (Vittert appears to have misspoken, intending to say D.C. voters preferred Joe Biden by that margin.)
Vittert returned to the topic later in an interview with Erin Perrine, Trump 2020 director of press communications.
“No plans to concede — what’s the path, then, to 270?” Vittert asked to begin the interview.
“Well, considering no state has actually certified the election results, there are ballots still being counted across the country, this is going to take some time to make sure we count every legal vote and do not count any illegal votes in the United States —” Perrine responded.
Vittert then interrupted her. “I understand that, we’ve heard that talking point for a long time,” he said, before accurately listing off Trump’s voting deficits in key battleground states.
“Well, Leland, thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak — it seems like you are certainly not keen to let that happen today,” Perrine responded, eliciting laughter from the anchor.
The rest of the interview was more contentious than usual for Fox News’ handling of Trump surrogates but well within the normal bounds of cable news. But even this mild, accurate pushback was too much for Lachlan Murdoch, who then reached out to Scott to rectify the situation.
Before and after Lachlan’s interventions, Fox News’ sycophantic coverage of the Trump campaign's desperate actions, including the coverage of his false claims of election fraud, was completely detached from reality.
- On November 2, 2020, Fox analyst Brit Hume defended premature declarations of election victory, saying that “political campaigns are about extravagant claims.”
- Fox’s Jason Chaffetz told Steve Doocy that Trump had already won reelection on November 4, 2020.
- On November 5, 2020, Sean Hannity said a “do-over” of the election in Pennsylvania is “the only remedy.”
- On November 16, 2020, Fox “straight news” anchor Bill Hemmer said that debunked conspiracy theories about Dominion from Trump campaign lawyer Sidney Powell “sounded convincing.”
- Late night news anchor Shannon Bream hosted Trump campaign attorney Jenna Ellis on November 17, 2020, as she pushed for the Michigan state legislature to get involved in a plot to appoint pro-Trump false electors in swing states.
- On November 18, 2020, Fox contributor Newt Gingrich instructed Georgians to go to the governor's mansion and “communicate that you're prepared to stand up for America.” A few weeks later, Gingrich stated that he believed “Trump probably did actually carry Georgia.”
- Fox News contributor Mollie Hemingway dismissed a report of Trump floating martial law when he meet with conspiracy theorists in the Oval Office.
- On November 30, 2020, almost immediately after Trump shamed Fox News on Twitter for not covering a public meeting featuring members of the Trump campaign and of the Arizona state legislature, anchor Harris Faulkner suddenly gave the meeting more coverage, which continued into anchor Dana Perino’s “straight news” coverage in the next hour.
- Fox’s chief political anchor Bret Baier framed a December 2, 2020, Trump speech full of baseless claims about the election as the former president “still fighting to the end,” and avoided commenting on the content of the speech.
- On December 7, 2020, Harris Faulkner didn’t push back on Rep. Mo Brooks’ (R-AL) accusation that the election was stolen, calling the plan to reject electoral votes from states Trump lost “fascinating.” Her show’s Twitter account used the #stopthesteal hashtag to promote the segment.
- On January 2, 2021, correspondent Griff Jenkins proposed that Republican voters may have “a duty and really a reason to object” because there are “tens of millions of Americans that have questions about the integrity of the presidential election.”
The Dominion court filings make it plain that Rupert Murdoch, his son Lachlan Murdoch, and other executives at Fox News were paying close attention to how the network was covering Trump’s baseless election claims, and singling out diversions from the campaign’s narrative for correction. Lachlan’s directions to quash even moderate attempts to fact-check those falsehoods helped lay the foundation for the coverage on Fox that supported Trump’s multipronged, illegitimate effort to stay in power, all in the name of ratings, money, and power.