An Inside Look At How Fox News Started Peddling The “Trump Didn’t Lose” Big Lie, Even Though The Murdochs Were Against It

The resulting editorial was titled “President Trump, your legacy is secure — stop the ‘stolen election’ rhetoric.” Murdoch and his son Lachlan reviewed the draft in advance. Lachlan said it looked great. Murdoch agreed but, ever the newspaperman, he flagged a few typos before it went to press.

The editorial gave Trump point-by-point directions on handling his loss with decency, starting with advice about his personal attorney: “Get Rudy Giuliani off TV. Ask for the recounts you are entitled to, wish Biden well, and look to the future.” As soon as it was posted online, Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott told Lachlan she would circulate it inside Fox, and then she wrote to PR chief Irena Briganti, “I’m sending this around to our staff.”

The Post editorial eliminated any doubt about the POV of Fox’s patriarch. Behave with “dignity,” the editorial said. Stop with the “baseless conspiracies.” Start planning for the transition.

The next day, Sunday, Nov. 8, the hosts of Fox & Friends Weekend were told to stay away from election fraud claims. But the show that followed, Maria Bartiromo’s Sunday Morning Futures, defied the guidance. Bartiromo, all gassed up on rage and righteousness, heaped shame onto the network and spurred a $787.5 million settlement payment. That’s because Bartiromo became the first Fox host to utter the name “Dominion.”

Bartiromo did it intentionally and repeatedly in front of millions of viewers. She mainstreamed a conspiracy theory which, by the end of the week, was being repeated in all caps by the president.

This episode — drawn from court records, television transcripts and interviews with people involved — is worth analyzing in detail because Bartiromo’s source was so unhinged; because the segment foreshadowed months of smears; and because it provided a predicate for the “Big Lie” that Trump continues to promote to this day. Six in 10 Republican voters say they believe the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump. But “stolen” how? One day after Biden became president-elect, Bartiromo used her Fox megaphone to tell a story that Trump and the heartbroken MAGA base embraced, to the detriment of Trump’s party and the country writ large.

Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch let it happen. If father and son have regrets, they have not expressed any publicly. Rupert is slated to step aside at his media companies, News Corp and Fox Corp, later this week, taking the title of chairman emeritus while Lachlan fully inherits control of the companies. While the transition is supposed to be a forward-looking celebration, Fox is still tied into knots by Trump — who now calls himself a “proud election denier” — and the falsehoods that Fox beamed into homes all across the country.

Of her two big guests on Nov. 8, Bartiromo thought Giuliani would be the trickier one because he had been publicly accusing Fox of tipping the scales to favor Biden. The Fox exec in charge of weekend programming, David Clark, emailed Bartiromo on Saturday and said, “Maria, I am asking that we reconsider the Rudy Giuliani booking tomorrow.” Clark attached an article from The Independent in the U.K. titled “Giuliani releases bizarre video claiming Fox News won election for Biden.” The election was over; why book a conspiracy theorist to say otherwise? But Bartiromo blew him off because, she later said, “it was our show,” not his.

Before the show, Bartiromo told producer Abby Grossberg that she would call up Giuliani and ask him not to bash Fox on its own air. “It’s also a pretape,” Grossberg noted to Bartiromo, “so if it goes completely off the rails, we could always try to cut” his insults out.

That turned out to be the least of their worries. The much bigger problem was their other guest, a Texas-based lawyer named Sidney Powell, who had transformed from a federal prosecutor in the 1980s to a critic of prosecutorial overreach in the 2000s. Powell achieved MAGA celebrity status for her savage criticism of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election and her representation of Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the MAGA hero whom Trump pardoned for lying to the FBI about Russia. She was a regular on Lou Dobbs’ show. (Maggie Haberman reported in her book Confidence Man that Trump started speaking with Powell “after being impressed by her appearances” with Dobbs.) Now Powell was on the president’s legal team, or at least that’s what Bartiromo said when she welcomed Powell onto the show. (After Powell pleaded guilty in the Georgia election case and agreed to testify against Trump, he claimed she was “never” his attorney.)

Powell alleged, in her very first answer, “a massive and coordinated effort to steal this election from We the People of the United States of America, to delegitimize and destroy votes for Donald Trump, to manufacture votes for Joe Biden.”

The ball of noxious fabrications rolled downhill from there, thanks in large part to Bartiromo’s prodding. The moment it ended, Briganti’s Fox PR deputy Caley Cronin texted her and warned that the Powell interview was “problematic.” Yes, Briganti replied, “tons of crazy — I am screaming at Stelter via text so I missed some of it.”

It’s true — Briganti and I exchanged some very pointed texts during the 10 a.m. hour on Sunday. At the time, I was the anchor of the 11 a.m. Sunday program “Reliable Sources” on CNN, and I was about to go on the air and castigate Fox for enabling Trump’s delusions about the election. I noted on TV that it wasn’t just Bartiromo doing so: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich went on Fox at 9 a.m. and said “thieves” in big cities stole the election — a merry dog whistle for the racists in the viewing audience. Trump immediately tweeted out Gingrich’s words.

Briganti argued to me that Fox hosts were reporting on newsworthy allegations — POTUS was still claiming he won — and were pushing back on controversial claims. But Bartiromo hardly “pushed back” at all. Instead, she pushed the lies.

“Sidney,” Bartiromo said, “I want to ask you about these algorithms and the Dominion software. I understand Nancy Pelosi has an interest in this company.” Then she tossed to commercial break. “Stay with us,” she said, delivering the tease perfectly. (The Pelosi link was made up, by the way.) After the ads for hearing aids and telehealth doctors, Bartiromo came back on camera and said, “Sidney, we talked about the Dominion software. I know that there were voting irregularities. Tell me about that.” Powell alleged fraud: “They were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist.”

Bartiromo should have said, “Who’s they?” and asked, “What proof do you have?” But she barely challenged Powell at all. Bartiromo sounded more amazed than doubtful and told Powell to “please come back soon.” Cronin told Briganti that the show was so “crazy” she decided not to send the transcript to the reporters who usually received highlights from Fox’s Sunday morning shows — an indication that at least someone at Fox already knew the show was becoming increasingly deranged. Briganti said to Cronin that Bartiromo is “one of our biggest issues now.”

What they didn’t know was that Powell’s Dominion smear was rooted in a ludicrous email from one random, especially unglued Trump fan.

In 2022, as Dominion’s legal team reviewed hundreds of thousands of emails and texts unearthed from the bowels of Fox, they zeroed in on a uniquely zany missive dated Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020.

A woman by the name of Marlene Bourne wrote that she was “told” to send the email, titled “Election Fraud Info,” to Powell, Fox host Lou Dobbs and pro-Trump activist Tom Fitton (who was later identified as a unindicted co-conspirator in the Georgia RICO indictment). Because Powell was booked on Bartiromo’s show the next morning, Powell forwarded it to Bartiromo, as if to prep the host on the hysterical hijinks she planned to unleash.

Parts of the three-page email were, by Bourne’s own admission, “wackadoodle.” She claimed to be “internally decapitated”; she described having visions; she said, “The Wind tells me I’m a ghost.” She said some things that were easily debunked: For example, that Roger Ailes and other “owners of the major US media outlets secretly huddle most days to determine how best to portray Mr. Trump as badly as possible.” It was a supremely well-kept secret, indeed, since Ailes died in 2017 — and he hadn’t owned Fox, he’d just acted like he did in his CEO role. The email also asserted that former Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia “was purposefully killed at the annual Bohemian Grove camp … during a weeklong human hunting expedition.”

These laugh lines should have led Bartiromo to click the delete button, as well as the one that opens a trap door under the chair of deranged guests. Instead, she shared it with her producer Grossberg, and she clicked reply, telling Powell that “I just spoke to Eric and told him you gave very imp info” — a reference to Eric Trump.

Bourne’s “wackadoodle” email was germane for two reasons: It was chock-full of equally loony claims about Dominion, and it was the only message referencing Dominion in Bartiromo’s and Grossberg’s inboxes prior to Powell’s live shot on their show. In other words, it was Patient Zero in the coming contagion that would infect all of Fox and the GOP.

Powell didn’t send Fox any legit evidence of wrongdoing before smearing the company on national television. Bartiromo didn’t contact Bourne before going ahead with the segment. Grossberg didn’t conduct any due diligence about her guest’s apparent source. It was the Fox paradigm in all its glory: shoot first; don’t ask questions at all.

If any of them had followed up with Bourne, they might have learned, as The Daily Beast did, that she based her ideas about election fraud “on a wide variety of sources, including hidden messages she detects in films, song lyrics she hears on the radio, and overheard conversations she hears while in line at the supermarket checkout.”

The existence of the crazed email was a gift to Dominion’s lawyers since Bartiromo and Powell’s Nov. 8 cross-talk was the first alleged instance of defamation. Dominion lawyer Davida Brook grilled Bartiromo about it when the host was deposed in September 2022. Bartiromo kept saying she didn’t know Bourne, but admitted the email was “kooky.” Yet on that Nov. 8 broadcast Bartiromo repeated some of Bourne’s bogus email almost word for word:

Bourne: “Don’t you find it curious that Nadeam Elshami, Nancy Pelosi’s longtime chief of staff, is a key executive there, and that Richard Blum, Senator Feinstein’s husband, is not only a significant shareholder of that company, but in Avid Technologies as well?”

Bartiromo: “I also see reports that Nancy Pelosi’s longtime chief of staff is a key executive at that company; Richard Blum, Senator Feinstein’s husband, a significant shareholder of the company.”

To be clear, those claims were baseless, as fact-checks by the AP and other news organizations confirmed. Making matters even worse, Bartiromo “never reported on the existence of this email,” Dominion pointed out. She didn’t reveal her zany sourcing. Nor did she disclose to viewers that she was acting as a liaison between Powell and the Trump family.

As for the Giuliani interview earlier in the hour, well, it was ultimately deemed just a footnote. “Maria did a good job with Rudy,” Fox Business exec Gary Schreier wrote to his boss Lauren Petterson afterward. “She did well,” Petterson agreed. “It’s just going to be hard to get her back to business news for a while.” Schreier commented to Petterson that Bartiromo “has GOP conspiracy theorists in her ear and they use her for their message sometimes. I wish she had that awareness.”

These execs were technically responsible for Bartiromo, yet they were passively bemoaning how bad actors “use” her, and they were not intervening. It was an early sign that Fox was not going to stop, never mind correct, the torrent of irresponsible sludge Bartiromo was pouring out on their air.

In the days following Biden’s victory, Fox’s hosts all seemed to see the same destination — Trump and his voters were the victims of a “rigged” election — and they tried out various ways to get there. Tucker Carlson, for one, was more subtle about it than Bartiromo and Dobbs, who went all-in on very specific, X-Files-style conspiracy theories about hackers and algorithms. Carlson instead asked leading questions and claimed “election interference” had tipped the scales against Trump. He said imperfect polls were tantamount to “voter suppression” and Covid-era changes to voting procedures were intended to “move votes.” “Move” was the ideal word, because it didn’t require proving anything nefarious had actually happened to the votes, it only had to sound like something cheaters did. Carlson privately thought Powell’s “software shit” was “absurd.” He worriedly speculated that “half our viewers have seen the Maria clip,” and he wanted to push back on it.

Meanwhile, Powell and Giuliani kept being booked on other Fox shows. Giuliani went on Dobbs’ show on Thursday, Nov. 12 and brought up Dominion, also triggering the first of many smears about rival company Smartmatic on the network. “All of its software is Smartmatic software,” Rudy lied, “so the votes actually go to Barcelona, Spain.” Dobbs threw around terms like “overthrow,” “cover up” and “election nightmare.” Now not one but two different voting companies had standing to sue for defamation. (Smartmatic’s case against Fox is proceeding toward a 2025 trial.)

If Dobbs was at one end, and reality was at the other, primetime star Sean Hannity was somewhere in between. Nearly a week after Biden became president-elect, Hannity pretended the outcome of the election was still in doubt, citing “outstanding votes that have yet to be counted” and “more reports of dead people voting from beyond the grave.” He talked at length about Dominion, dropping innuendo like breadcrumbs for the flock to follow, all about “security concerns” and “fraudulent software.” Trump watched and cheered. He had rage-tweeted against Fox earlier in the day, but after Hannity’s show that night, he wrote, “Must see @seanhannity takedown of the horrible, inaccurate and anything but secure Dominion Voting System which is used in States where tens of thousands of votes were stolen from us and given to Biden. Likewise, the Great @LouDobbs has a confirming and powerful piece!”

Dominion’s lawyers would later argue that by the night of Nov. 12, “the truth was in Fox’s inbox.” That was because of something called “Setting the Record Straight.” It was a lengthy email compiled by Hamilton Place Strategies, a Washington comms firm that Dominion had to hire when Powell and Bartiromo began to disparage the company. Tony Fratto, a White House deputy press secretary under George W. Bush, was a partner at Hamilton Place and the lead PR rep for Dominion, and he thought the voting firm would be a short-term engagement, since post-election fires usually burn themselves out in a month or two. But this time, they were fighting a block-wide inferno with water pistols. There were at least half a dozen different flash-falsehoods, from cries about secret CIA programs to claims about sneaky last-minute software updates. So “Setting the Record Straight” was Dominion’s solution. The email was sent to hundreds of members of the media, including many at Fox. “We needed to create a fact trail,” Fratto said.

In concert with the fact-check emails, Fratto began calling and messaging the folks he knew at Fox. To lead election anchor Bret Baier, he wrote, on Nov. 12, “These attacks by the president and Rudy are bonkers, and untrue. I wanted you to have the facts attached below.” To business anchor Neil Cavuto, he forwarded a clip of Giuliani lying about Dominion on Dobbs’ show and wrote, “You know I respect you and I have a lot of friends over there, but this is some of the most embarrassing and malicious TV I’ve ever been forced to watch.”

The following weekend, Powell and Giuliani were back on with Bartiromo, a full week after Rupert’s hand-edited editorial said, “get Rudy Giuliani off TV.” Fratto had a long and friendly history with Bartiromo: He estimated that he’d been on her former CNBC show 40-plus times. So he pinged her at 9:09 a.m. Sunday, less than an hour before showtime. “There has been a LOT of misinformation out there about Dominion,” he wrote.

And there was about to be a ton more. Dominion was smeared more than 20 times during Bartiromo’s broadcast. Powell repeatedly made it sound like Dominion and Smartmatic were one and the same, when they were actually rival companies. Fratto was reduced to emailing Bartiromo during her show, trying to get through to her: “Dominion has nothing to do with Smartmatic.” And again: “What on earth are you talking about?” The next day, Fratto appealed directly to Scott, Fox News’ CEO, writing that “this situation is crossing dangerous lines.”

Dominion attorney Stephen Shackelford later called Fratto’s early intervention “one of the most amazing facts” of the case: “Here’s a guy saying ‘please stop this’ to the CEO and they still let it go on for weeks and weeks? That was crazy to me.”

By 2023, Hamilton Place had a new name, Penta, but Dominion was still a client; the short-term stint turned into a years-long relationship because Dominion still needed defending. Untold millions of people still believe fantastical falsehoods about the 2020 election. While Fox paid to make the Dominion case go away, Dominion continues to pursue Newsmax, Powell, Giuliani and other key players. Further trials are slated to take place in 2024 and 2025, meaning the litigation could linger long past the next presidential election and well into the Lachlan Murdoch era of Fox Corp. What Bartiromo began on a Sunday morning in November, because of a “wackadoodle” email, destroyed America’s sense of a shared reality about the 2020 election, and the consequences will be felt for years to come.

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