For weeks after the US election, high-profile Fox News anchors peddled Donald Trump’s “big lie” that the presidential election had been stolen.
Now, Fox’s role in amplifying those claims could have major legal and financial consequences for the network founded and owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Fox provided a sympathetic platform to then-president Trump and his lawyers as they engaged in a campaign to persuade the American public that a massive fraud had taken place.
The stolen election claims were believed by large numbers and drove the violent assault in Washington on January 6 when thousands stormed the Capitol in a last-ditch attempt to prevent the election result being confirmed.
At the centre of the allegations were two voting technology companies accused of conspiring to rig the election.
Smartmatic and Dominion are now suing Fox News, three of its anchors and Trump loyalists Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, for a total of $4.3 billion.
Interviewed by Four Corners, Sidney Powell is still claiming the election was stolen and repeating her attack on those companies, despite the legal threat hanging over her.
While there were many sources of disinformation after the election, former Fox insiders point to the culpability of the Fox Network because of its power over Trump’s supporters.
Former Fox political editor Chris Stirewalt, who was fired from the network after the election, says Fox had a particular responsibility to resist the poison of the big lie.
“Fox had the opportunity to use its position to tell the truth for the good of the country. And failed to use its power and resources that it had to stand up to Donald Trump,” he said.
The big lie has since become embedded in a section of the American public. Many of his supporters believe Donald Trump is still their president.
Why did Fox News back Trump and then peddle his lies?
According to Washington Post media reporter Sarah Ellison, Fox founder and owner Rupert Murdoch has always wanted access to an American president, and he got it once Trump was elected.
“It has been enormously successful for him,” she said. “Rupert managed to have the kind of access to an American president that very few people have achieved historically.”
Aligning itself closely with Donald Trump proved a ratings bonanza for the network, and Trump’s influence over Fox grew while he was president.
“Trump caught on with the Fox audience and so it became a self-licking ice cream cone, where you get great ratings because of Trump,” former Fox contributor, retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, said.
On election night last November, there was a rupture in the Fox and Trump relationship.
Fox News was the first network to call the critical state of Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, spoiling Trump’s momentum after some early wins. Trump treated the Fox call as a personal betrayal.
Trump attacked Fox relentlessly and the network’s prime time ratings dropped.
“The audience was punishing them, their own audience that they had courted and created and built over these many years, was leaving them in droves,” Ellison said.
In an effort to win back Trump’s supporters and to curry favour with the president himself, key Fox anchors began pushing the stolen election narrative.
New York lawyer Howard Kleinhendler was part of the chaotic legal team brought together on Trump’s behalf to challenge the election result.
“Fox, at least at the outset, was the only mainstream media outlet that was at least allowing this narrative … to go forward at the time,” he said.
What’s the case against Fox?
Chicago lawyer Erik Connolly is preparing the $US2.7 billion ($3.7 billion) defamation case against Fox News, three of the network’s stars — Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro and Lou Dobbs — and two Trump lawyers on behalf of Smartmatic.
The other voting machine company, Dominion, is suing Fox News separately for $US1.6 billion ($2.2 billion). A total of $US4.3 billion ($5.9 billion).
Connolly described it as a “David and Goliath” battle but said the list of provable lies told about Smartmatic was extensive.
“It really did go from, Smartmatic was founded by Hugo Chavez, they are funded by corrupt dictators, conspired to rig this election, they own Dominion, their equipment is used to rig elections, they send votes overseas, they have backdoors that allow security breaches.
“And none of that is factually accurate.”
Central to Fox’s defence is the considerable protection given under American law to free speech, a fundamental principle which also protects media organisations covering controversial topics.
“Challenges to the outcome of the presidential election are newsworthy. I’m not contesting that,” Connolly said.
“What we are contesting is that when you do that, when you are doing that coverage, you can’t intentionally lie about it.”
In the case of Smartmatic, a simple crucial fact was missing from the Fox coverage.
The company accused of orchestrating a nationwide election fraud had a single contract in the 2020 election to provide a new voting system in LA County, California.
Connolly’s key exhibits in the case include interviews broadcast on Fox with two Trump lawyers, Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, who are also targeted in the suit.
In those interviews, Powell and Giuliani describe a broad conspiracy funded by communist countries to steal votes from Donald Trump by hacking the voting machines, what Powell described as “cyber–Pearl Harbor.”
Powell, a former federal prosecutor, was best known as the lawyer for former general Michael Flynn, the national security advisor convicted of lying to the FBI and later pardoned by Trump.
Powell’s most memorable line from her post-election appearances was her pledge to “release the Kraken,” her promise to prove the election was stolen with large amounts of evidence.
Fox News has rejected the cases against it, saying:
“FOX News covered the election in the highest tradition of the First Amendment”
After the Smartmatic lawsuit was filed against Fox News, the company issued the following statement:
“FOX News Media is committed to providing the full context of every story with in-depth reporting and clear opinion. We are proud of our 2020 election coverage and will vigorously defend against this meritless lawsuit in court.”
‘I’m not prepared to accept that fact’: Sidney Powell
Four Corners travelled to Dallas to meet Sidney Powell. Despite being personally sued for billions of dollars, she continued to argue the election was stolen and the voting technology companies were involved.
When asked if she accepted the fact that the company she accused of stealing a national election only operated in one county, she replied:
“No, I’m not prepared to accept that fact. I think Smartmatic’s involvement was far more significant than that. Do I think they’re trying to minimise their involvement? Of course, I do.”
She also rejected the assertion by government organisations tasked with verifying the election that it was the most secure ever.
“That’s the propaganda they’re putting out. I disagree with that completely, and we have and will produce additional evidence that shows otherwise.”
Four Corners put it to her that she had shown no direct evidence of fraud, the affidavits she had produced were dodgy, and the witnesses she relied on had dubious credentials.
“That’s your characterisation … You might as well be working for Dominion and Smartmatic,” she said.
Where did the lies lead?
Not everyone at Fox News bought the big lie.
While sceptical of the election result, Fox star Tucker Carlson rejected Sidney Powell’s claims. Eric Shawn, an old-school Fox News anchor, questioned the stolen election narrative on air.
Erik Connolly sent a letter to Fox, on behalf of Smartmatic, on December 10, 2020, demanding a retraction. Within days, Fox broadcast statements repudiating its own coverage.
Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson says the lawsuits are very serious for the network.
“There may be some culpability there.”
“I just think about the impact that it’s had on the American people. And people will say, ‘Well, it’s up to them to be able to make up their own minds.’ Yes. But it’s also up to the morality of news operations to provide factual information.”
Some of Fox’s best-known anchors had put their credibility behind the big lie, adding to the storm of outrage that was brewing in American households.
On January 6, that storm burst into the Capitol building as pro-Trump rioters converged.
Adam Kinzinger is one of two Republicans on the House Committee investigating the assault on the Capitol. He says Fox News and its owners Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch have questions to answer.
“If you own the network, certainly you have to make a decision. What do I want this network to be based on? … Is it going to push lies? Is it not?” he said.
“When you have anchors pushing lies as facts, it’s really dangerous.”
In a statement to Four Corners, Fox News said inquiries earlier this year into the insurrection on January 6 “did not implicate” the network.
“Congressional hearings and the Biden Justice Department not only did not implicate Fox, but other media companies were cited as platforms for inciting and coordinating the Capitol riots,” its statement said.
For 10 years, retired Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters was a Fox News strategic analyst. His analysis now is damning of Rupert Murdoch.
“My country gave him so much. And how did he repay that? By cynically backing Donald Trump,” he said.
“Rupert Murdoch today is doing direct harm to my country. And it bewilders me that there’s no mechanism to stop him. I am not in favour of censorship of ideas. I’m in favour of combating lies.”
The ‘big lie’ is still believed
“He’s coming back … because he didn’t lose the election, they stole it,” a Trump supporter told Four Corners.
Thousands chanted “Trump won” for hours while waiting for their political messiah to appear.
Donald Trump is back on the road staging rallies like this, claiming he won the election in 2020 and vowing revenge on Republican “traitors” who argue against him.
“I know he’s the president. This is all fake,” another supporter said.
With almost absolute control of his party, Trump himself intends to take the ”big lie” all the way to 2024.
In the meantime, the network that promoted his lies faces potentially significant financial penalties and a reckoning of its role in one of the darkest events in contemporary America.
Rudy Giuliani’s law licence has already been suspended in New York and Washington for his role in promoting the big lie, on the grounds his behaviour represents an immediate threat to public safety.
Powell and Kleinhendler have been sanctioned by a Michigan judge for their roles for filing what the court called a “frivolous” election fraud lawsuit.
A hearing is set in Texas to consider disbarring Sidney Powell.