Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the conservative media empire that owns Fox News, acknowledged in a deposition that several hosts for his networks promoted the false narrative that the election in 2020 was stolen from former President Donald J. Trump, court documents released on Monday showed.
“They endorsed,” Mr. Murdoch said under oath in response to direct questions about the hosts Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, a legal filing by Dominion Voting Systems said. “I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight.”
Mr. Murdoch’s remarks, which he made last month as part of the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox by Dominion, added to the evidence that Dominion has accumulated in an attempt to prove its central allegation: The people running the country’s most popular news network knew Mr. Trump’s claims of voter fraud during the 2020 election were false but broadcast them anyway.
The new documents and a similar batch released this month revealed that top executives and on-air hosts reacted with incredulity bordering on contempt to the various fictitious allegations about Dominion, including that a secret algorithm in its machines allowed votes to be switched from one candidate to another and that the company was founded in Venezuela to help that country’s longtime leader, Hugo Chávez, fix elections.
Dominion’s latest filing also described how Paul D. Ryan, a former Republican speaker of the House and current member of the Fox Corporation board of directors, said in his deposition that he had told Mr. Murdoch and Mr. Murdoch’s son Lachlan, the chief executive officer, “Fox News should not be spreading conspiracy theories.” Mr. Ryan suggested that the network pivot and “move on from Donald Trump and stop spouting election lies.”
The filing casts Mr. Murdoch as a chairman who was both deeply engaged with his senior leadership about coverage of the election and operating at somewhat of a remove, unwilling to interfere. Asked by Dominion’s lawyer, Justin Nelson, whether he could have ordered Fox News to keep Trump lawyers like Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani off the air, Mr. Murdoch responded: “I could have. But I didn’t.”
The filing helps fill in the broader case against Fox News and its corporate parent, Fox Corporation, that Dominion lawyers hope to present to a jury in April, when a Delaware judge has scheduled the trial to begin.
A Fox News spokeswoman said on Monday in response to the filing that Dominion’s view of defamation law took “an extreme, unsupported view of defamation law that would prevent journalists from basic reporting.”
Since Dominion sued in early 2021, it has argued that Fox chose ratings and profit over its journalistic obligation to tell viewers the truth.
Using text messages and emails sent by Fox employees and prominent hosts like Mr. Hannity and Tucker Carlson in the weeks after the election, Dominion has pieced together a dramatic account from inside the network, depicting a frantic scramble to woo back viewers after ratings collapsed.
On election night, Fox News was the first news outlet to declare Joseph R. Biden Jr. the winner of Arizona — effectively projecting that he would become the next president. With Mr. Trump refusing to concede that he had lost, he and his supporters turned against Fox, and the network’s ratings fell. Soon, many of the most popular hosts and shows on Fox began promoting the outlandish claims that Dominion machines were an integral part of a far-reaching voter fraud conspiracy to deny Mr. Trump a second term.
The filing on Monday also included a deposition by Viet Dinh, Fox’s chief legal officer. After Mr. Hannity told his audience on Nov. 5, 2020, that it would be “impossible to ever know the true, fair, accurate election results,” Mr. Dinh said, he remarked to Lachlan Murdoch; the chief executive of Fox News Media, Suzanne Scott; and Fox’s top communications officer, Irena Briganti: “Hannity is getting awfully close to the line with his commentary and guests tonight.”
In his deposition, Mr. Dinh, when asked if Fox executives had an obligation to stop hosts of shows from broadcasting lies, said: “Yes, to prevent and correct known falsehoods.”
Lawyers for Fox, which filed its response to Dominion in court on Monday, have argued that its broadcasts after the election did not amount to defamation because they were protected under the First Amendment. In court filings, Fox has defended its commentary and reporting as the kind of work that any journalistic outfit would do by covering events and newsmakers that are indisputably newsworthy.
“A reasonable viewer would have readily understood that hosts were not espousing the President’s allegations themselves, but were providing a forum for the principal architects of those legal challenges,” Fox lawyers said in a brief filed this month.
If its broadcasts did not present any of the fraud allegations as true, the network has argued, “there is no potential for defamation at all.”
Ultimately, the case is likely to revolve around questions about the intent of Fox hosts when they gave pro-Trump election deniers like Ms. Powell and Mr. Giuliani a platform and, in many cases, mustered no pushback as their guests falsely and repeatedly implicated Dominion in a plot to disenfranchise tens of millions of Trump voters.
Fox lawyers have pointed to instances on the air when hosts did challenge these claims and pressed Ms. Powell and Mr. Giuliani to present evidence that never materialized. At other times, Fox has argued, the hosts were plainly expressing their opinions, or used language that was “loose” and “figurative” and therefore protected under the First Amendment.
But Dominion has said the actions of Fox hosts including Mr. Carlson, Mr. Hannity, Ms. Bartiromo and Mr. Dobbs — and the producers and executives overseeing their programs — were anything but a dispassionate recitation of newsworthy claims of fraud. Rather, Dominion has argued, the internal communications it has uncovered point to how Fox employees behaved with “actual malice” — the legal standard required to prove defamation.
There are two ways to meet that high legal bar, by showing that defendants either knew what they were saying was false or acted with such haste and disregard for the truth that they overlooked obvious facts to the contrary.
In a brief filed in court this month, Dominion lawyers revealed private text messages and emails that showed hosts including Mr. Carlson repeatedly insulting and mocking Trump advisers like Ms. Powell.
“Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane,” Mr. Carlson wrote on Nov. 18, 2020, to Laura Ingraham, who hosts the prime-time Fox News show that airs after his.
Ms. Ingraham responded: “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.”
Mr. Carlson continued, “Our viewers are good people and they believe it,” making it clear that he did not.
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