Brooke Gladstone From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. Earlier this week, media reporters descended on Wilmington, Delaware, to see one of the biggest First Amendment cases of the century, a lawsuit brought by a voting technology company.
News Clip Dominion had accused Fox News of knowingly pushing false conspiracy theories about what former President Trump had claimed were rigged voting machines following the 2020 presidential election. Part of this case centered on what Fox News host said on air to millions versus what some of them were saying and texting in private about these false claims.
Jim Rutenberg But I'm telling you that everyone involved in the case on the ground here were prepping to go to trial full bore so this thing was going forward.
Brooke Gladstone Jim Rutenberg, writer at large for The New York Times and its Sunday magazine, was there.
Jim Rutenberg There we are in the court. It's starting. The jury is impaneled. There's actually some jousting between the Fox lawyers and the Dominion lawyers.
Brooke Gladstone The room charged with anticipation.
Jim Rutenberg And suddenly, just as we're all gathered at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday to hear these opening arguments, the judge disappears. The jury doesn't come out. And then the minutes tick by. The minutes become a half hour. Half hour becomes an hour, 2 hours. And then, lo and behold, late afternoon.
Brooke Gladstone Stephen Colbert said it best.
Stephen Colbert I want my trial! You are supposed to provide me six weeks of delicious content. I wanted to see Rupert Murdoch put his hand on the Bible and burst into flames.
News Clip The two sides agreed to a $787.5 million settlement just hours after the jury was seated.
Jim Rutenberg And it was pretty dramatic.
Brooke Gladstone Yeah, dramatic. How, though, did you hear a lot of reporters cursing?
Jim Rutenberg Well, I think no matter what, everyone in that room was eager to see this big fight over libel law in this country in the age of disinformation.
Brooke Gladstone A case that actually had a chance of being won. Because the thing that makes it so hard, proving flagrant disregard of the truth was a little easier in this case?
Jim Rutenberg Yeah, the Dominion lawyers managed to get their hands on pretty extensive discovery. Four weeks before trial, we were seeing Fox and its corporate parent, the Fox Corporation, led by Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, knew that this conspiracy theory was as bonkers as everybody else knew it to be. Outside the.
News Clip Highest ranking executives at Fox News, Rupert Murdoch, Suzanne Scott, the CEO, as well as some of the top hosts, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingram. They knew these election fraud claims from the Trump team were nonsense. They used very harsh language to describe them, but they allowed these lies to take hold on the network's air
Jim Rutenberg Dominion was focused on particularly 20 instances of the conspiracy, getting unfettered access to their airwaves. Now, the thing at trial would have been who was really responsible? Did Rupert Murdoch control the shows per se? So there were going to be a lot of technicalities, but it was going to be an accountability moment.
Brooke Gladstone The Dominion attorney said money is accountability, but the public doesn't get to hear what happened.
Jim Rutenberg Well, the lawyers answer to that and they've been asked a lot is that ultimately their responsibility was to their client. The client wanted its reputation restored. They think they achieved that much because in their view, all those things you're talking about democracy, misinformation, the sanctity of our elections, they were in the mix. But this trial was really about these 20 statements and what they did to Dominion Voting Systems reputation and its bottom line.
Brooke Gladstone Right. And it wasn't their responsibility to serve the nation in this regard. I get that. It's just frustrating. And you wrote the one question that only time will answer is whether the settlement was enough to cause Fox News to change the way it handles such incendiary and defamatory conspiracy content. The amount was huge. Fox News certainly doesn't want to see a similar settlement any time soon. Notably, a $2.7 billion suit from another election technology company, Smartmatic. You said only time will answer whether Fox will change its ways. But would you venture a guess?
Jim Rutenberg It's hard, right? Because even as this trial was moving forward and you'd think that Fox would want to really be minding its P's and Q's, the host, Tucker Carlson, was running programing that was basically even according to Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, and according to special report, its main news show that was misrepresenting what happened on January six through selective editing of video. So Fox has seemed to have been able to get out of this without having to make any great mea culpa. But this was not good for them. So will they do anything to avoid it? And that's going to come down to two things. Does the desperation for ratings, which led it to defame Dominion, override everything once again? Or is there a realization that we need to pull back from the brink? But what we now know is there has to be someone being defamed. You can say all kinds of things about people who aren't going to sue, right? The difference was that here was a company that was ready to sue and had a lot of money to hire an incredible team of lawyers.
Brooke Gladstone We have Smartmatic coming around the horizon. Will we expect something different in that case?
Jim Rutenberg I have to imagine that one settles because the one thing Fox really wants to do here is skip past all this discovery that was out in the ether. Its audience, we all know, is in a certain bubble. It has not been greatly exposed to all of the emails and the texts that other media have been focusing on, but that discovery can come back. They don't want that, but they also don't want to send the signal that we're open season come to us and we're going to give you money to go away. So they're in a bind. Some people have submitted that Rupert Murdoch won.
Brooke Gladstone No, really.
Jim Rutenberg I don't agree with that. But that's a view because they are not having to make any kind of big apology on air.
Brooke Gladstone Something that Dominion really wanted.
Jim Rutenberg And we're still trying to find out what changed there, people point to the money. Kind of obvious, but I don't think he won here. And we're going to see what Wall Street thinks of this. How many big settlements is Wall Street going to put up with? And eventually, does the board have to act? So there is some considerable accountability going on here, no matter what.
Brooke Gladstone Your 2019 article is called, How Rupert Murdoch's Empire Remade the World. Quote, Murdoch and his feuding sons turn their media outlets into right wing political influence machines that have destabilized democracy in North America, Europe and Australia. Give me some examples of the impact of the Murdoch empire on world culture.
Jim Rutenberg Look, in Australia, his newspapers, they are absolute leader makers. If they want to see a Prime Minister go, they can do a lot to push that person out. That was happening in 2019. They had been part of this push to get rid of Prime Minister Turnbull, then look to Brexit. Brexit was fascinating because one thing that gets lost in the Rupert Murdoch storytelling is that he has some outlets that are much more responsible, much better grounded in basics of journalism. Times of London, Wall Street Journal. So in the UK, the Times of London was not pro-Brexit. The U.K. Sun, his tabloid was. And the U.K. Sun is so much more influential because it plays to these populist passions. So The Sun and Rupert Murdoch were very much helping along this process toward Brexit and really pushing the limits of journalism as they did so that Britain. Now, here, do we have to even go beyond this dominion case you had hosts like Tucker Carlson night after night for many nights in a row saying something's going on here, even when Tucker Carlson would hedge a little bit. I'm just asking questions.
Tucker Carlson And that means we have to answer them. For example, in Pennsylvania, Nevada and Michigan, the Trump campaign has now collected signed affidavits that attest to criminal activity during the voting process in the city of Detroit. Witnesses have alleged under oath that ballots were improperly backdated and counted without matching signatures. Now, all of that is real. We spent all weekend checking it. False claims of fraud can be every bit as destructive as the fraud itself. So we need to be careful and responsible, all of us. But what we just told you is true. And there's more of it.
Jim Rutenberg If you're buying into that, that would be enraging to any sentient being if an election really had been stolen. So that matters. And that was really in the mix here.
Brooke Gladstone So Murdoch got his start in Australia, then he went to the U.K., moved into media markets, notably in the U.S., also in India and China. What is his playbook, Jim? How does the empire work?
Jim Rutenberg That story really starts when Rupert lands in the U.S. in 1973. I could go farther back for you, but I think that's early enough for a pattern. He came here and he made it very simple declaration. We're going to give the public what they want. And when he comes into the U.S., Watergate is going down. The press is at the height of its power in this country based on the notion of reporting the news without fear and favor journalism post World War Two. So like the journalism that helped give attention to the civil rights movement, the journalism that help stop the Vietnam War, in Murdoch's view, when he lands here, these journalists are now getting too full of themselves. They're losing touch with their public. They think they know what's best. And I'm just going to give them what they want. His first local papers are in San Antonio, buys a couple of papers and he lights that town on fire by giving the people what they want. The screaming headlines. And by the way, San Antonio had a paper that was part of the Hearst chain, not known as a shrinking violet chain, but he out Hearst'd Hearst. And that repeats itself again and again and creates extraordinary success for him.
Brooke Gladstone So let's talk about 1980. He meets Roy Cohn, the former advisor to Senator Joe McCarthy, a Trump mentor who introduces Rupert to Governor Ronald Reagan's inner circle.
Jim Rutenberg He also introduced him to a Cohen aide de camp named Roger Stone. That was the beginning of Rupert's incredible American political journey because Rupert Murdoch at the time owned the biggest paper at that time the New York Post. We think of the New York Post now, it's fairly big, but it's a New York City paper. It was then, too, but it was one of the biggest papers in the country. And New York at the time was a contestable state. Reagan had a chance to win it. And Rupert, after meeting Cohn and working with Cohn's aide de camp, Roger Stone, they turned the post into a pamphlet for Reagan, and that is credited with helping Reagan win New York. Maybe that would have happened anyway. Reagan was incredibly popular, but Rupert was ready to take his credit for it and to get what he wanted from the Reagan administration,.
Brooke Gladstone Which was?
Jim Rutenberg He wanted loosened regulation because Rupert already knew he had an eye on getting into television, broadcast television. Because I think people forget that in 1980 cables there you have CNN, but it's not in every household. At that time, broadcast television was where it's at, and broadcast television was hyper regulated in terms of political content, in terms of what you could own. So what Rupert Murdoch really wanted was a way to keep his newspapers and buy television stations to start a network. The law blocked him from doing that.
Brooke Gladstone You weren't allowed to own a TV station and a newspaper in the same market?
Jim Rutenberg Yes.
Brooke Gladstone Reagan waived that prohibition, allowed Murdoch to hold on to his big metro dailies, The Post, The Boston Herald, even when he moved TV into both cities. That was a big deal.
Jim Rutenberg It allowed him to start this fourth network, which took him to a whole other stratosphere, by the way. Another thing that happened, though, was that we had prohibitions still have prohibitions on who can own an American television station. Murdoch was an Australian citizen. Well, during the Reagan administration, he managed to get his American citizenship very fast. Very fast. He's always denied he caught any favors. But Democrats at the time were very suspicious. So the Reagan administration was very, very good to Rupert Murdoch.
Brooke Gladstone The final word on Murdoch is always it's about the money. He'll dance with Hillary Clinton. He'll dance with Donald Trump, with Tony Blair, with whomever in order to get what he wants. Is it about the money now or is it about politics? Has he changed?
Jim Rutenberg Well, there are different views on that question from people who know him well. Okay. But I just want to say one thing. Yes. It's about the money, always about the money. But I always think the politics and the power have always been mixed up together. Yes, he'll dance with the liberal, but when he's dancing with Tony Blair, Tony Blair is also getting behind the war in Iraq, which Rupert Murdoch really wanted. So certain kinds of Democrats help flirt with. But inexorably, the line he's drawn has been to the right and the influence he's exerted has been conservative. Now, has he changed? There's a view among some people around him that, yes, he has in fact, changed, that he'd like to see himself as afflicting the powerful and fighting for the little guy. And that was the way his papers, the tabloids positioned themselves.
Brooke Gladstone Standing up for the have nots. So that what you're saying?
Jim Rutenberg Yes. And someone outside the elite circles, which on one level, I mean, he was born of incredible privilege, but self-image for all of us, right, drives you more than reality sometimes. But there is a view that as he got more inside the halls of power, he did change. But what hasn't changed and it's clear in the transcripts that came out in this Dominion trial is there's always been this sort of nonchalance about it, like, oh, everyone's getting all worked up about this democracy stuff. Give me a break. We're not responsible for that. The rest of the press, mostly liberal, they just are out to get me anyway. So there is a lot of consistency. Some people see some differences over time, and the end of the day it really doesn't matter because the result is the same and the results we all live with.
Brooke Gladstone Right. Jim, thank you very much.
Jim Rutenberg Thanks so much for having me.
Brooke Gladstone Jim Rutenberg is a writer for The New York Times. SmartMatic's 2.7 billion dollar defamation lawsuit against Fox News is pending. The trial date is still to be determined. Coming up, the nation's main media mogul as seen on TV. This is On the Media.
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