In late 2020, Rupert Murdoch was holed up in the English countryside with his now ex-wife, far from Fox News headquarters in Midtown Manhattan. The pandemic seclusion left him “bored,” he recently said in a deposition, with little to do “but write stupid emails.”
Those “stupid emails” now make up an extraordinary paper trail that has exposed the inner workings of Mr. Murdoch’s Fox media empire, revealing how he shapes coverage at his newspapers and cable networks and interacts with some of the most powerful figures in the Republican Party.
People who have worked with Mr. Murdoch said he never did much of his most important business over email. He preferred whenever possible to convey his wishes in person. But the pandemic changed that, leaving a trove of emails that lawyers for Dominion Voting Systems have used to build their $1.6 billion defamation case against Fox News.
Fox News declined to comment for this article.
‘I’m a journalist at heart. I like to be involved in these things.’
During his deposition in the case, Mr. Murdoch said the journalist in him liked “to be involved” in news stories. He meant it. In the days after the 2020 presidential election, Mr. Murdoch’s emails show, he was especially interested in using the news organizations he owns — The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post and Fox News — to pressure President Donald J. Trump to stop talking about voter fraud. As Mr. Murdoch testified, he thought Mr. Trump looked like “a bad loser.”
On Nov. 7, 2020, just before Fox News and the other networks declared Joseph R. Biden. Jr. the president-elect, Mr. Murdoch posed a question over email to the editor of The Post, Col Allan.
“Should we say something Donald might see?” he asked in his typically terse style of emailing.
Mr. Murdoch has known Mr. Trump for three decades — long enough to refer to him by his first name. And he understood that Mr. Trump was a regular reader of The Post who would probably read an editorial about himself, even one that wasn’t entirely flattering.
The new emails and testimony show just how involved Mr. Murdoch was in writing and editing that editorial. He emailed with Mr. Allan about some ideas, including how to frame their argument in a positive way around Mr. Trump’s legacy while also urging him to dump Rudolph W. Giuliani as his lawyer.
Neither man was a fan of Mr. Giuliani, the former New York mayor. “I think booze has got him,” Mr. Allan told Mr. Murdoch. In his deposition, Mr. Murdoch testified that Mr. Giuliani had been “a very good mayor of New York, but it has all been downhill since.”
When the draft was ready for Mr. Murdoch to see, he offered a few careful edits. “Few typos. eg ‘return to’ … not ‘retain to,’” he wrote, adding that he thought “dangerous” should be added to describe China. (The adjective was added.)
The editorial ran on Nov. 7 under the headline “President Trump, your legacy is secure — stop the ‘stolen election’ rhetoric.” And it included the line “Get Rudy Giuliani off TV.”
But Mr. Murdoch wasn’t done offering advice to his executives as the president and his supporters began attacking Fox.
‘Lots of sane Fox News viewers still believe in Trump.’
Those who have worked for Mr. Murdoch describe his approach in conveying his wishes as something of a light touch. He doesn’t dictate demands so much as suggest and imply through his observations. And the executives who tend to survive the longest understand what he is asking for.
On Nov. 9, as Mr. Trump accused Fox News of disloyalty for projecting that he would lose Arizona and the presidency, a sense of siege began to envelop the company. That day, Mr. Murdoch emailed the chief executive of Fox News Media, Suzanne Scott. The subject line was one word: “Vaccine.”
“Huge story today. People will be hungry for every detail,” he wrote, referring to the breakthrough just reported by Pfizer and BioNTech — that their vaccine was 90 percent effective against the coronavirus.
“What if it happened two weeks earlier!?” Mr. Murdoch asked, apparently implying that Mr. Trump might have benefited from the news if it had been announced before the election.
Ms. Scott, who had been discussing with her senior team the need to do something to slow the defection of Fox viewers to more pro-Trump networks like Newsmax, then told her boss that a “pivot” was underway. Dominion’s lawyers have argued that the shift in programming meant endorsing conspiracy theories about the company’s supposed involvement in a nonexistent plot to steal votes from Mr. Trump.
“Yes on it,” Ms. Scott said. “Pivot but keep the audience who loves us and trusts us.”
She added, “We need to make sure they know we aren’t abandoning them and still champions for them.”
Mr. Murdoch seemed pleased with this. “Thanks. All very true. Lots of sane Fox viewers still believe in Trump,” he wrote back.
Whatever he thought about Mr. Trump’s fans in the Fox audience, Mr. Murdoch’s opinions about him as a future leader of the Republican Party were another matter.
‘We want to make Trump a non person.’
Few media moguls in the United States have the power and the platform to shape public opinion the way Mr. Murdoch does in the Republican Party. His emails show how in late 2020 he was having dinner with the attorney general, William P. Barr; talking to Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate; and sharing information about commercials that the Biden campaign was running on Fox with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law.
After the assault on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, Mr. Murdoch seemed ready to use his power as never before — to cleanse the party of Mr. Trump once and for all.
“We want to make Trump a non person. Fairly easy unless they charge him and he remains in the news,” Mr. Murdoch wrote to a friend on Jan. 8, 2021, seeming to fully grasp the president’s ability to overtake a news cycle in or out of office.
He explained that Fox News was “busy pivoting,” adopting Ms. Scott’s language about how the network would reposition itself. “After a few days ignore Trump and quickly become the loyal opposition.”
He envisioned a playbook that had served him and Fox News well during the Obama presidency. “It will be easy once Biden starts rolling out policies,” Mr. Murdoch said, explaining to his friend that he had some inside information to support his strategy.
“I’m told their first priorities will be 1. COVID 2. The economy, and 3. Racial inequality,” he wrote.
“Ok,” he added, “but if 3. turns to be reparations things will heat up. And be challenging to us to handle properly.”