Newly disclosed messages and testimony from some of the biggest stars and most senior executives at Fox News revealed that they privately expressed disbelief about President Donald J. Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, even though the network continued to promote many of those lies on the air.
The hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham, as well as others at the company, repeatedly insulted and mocked Trump advisers, including Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani, in text messages with each other in the weeks after the election, according to a legal filing on Thursday by Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion is suing Fox for defamation in a case that poses considerable financial and reputational risk for the country’s most-watched cable news network.
“Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane,” Mr. Carlson wrote to Ms. Ingraham on Nov. 18, 2020.
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,” he added, making clear that he did not.
The messages also show that such doubts extended to the highest levels of the Fox Corporation, with Rupert Murdoch, its chairman, calling Mr. Trump’s voter fraud claims “really crazy stuff.”
On one occasion, as Mr. Murdoch watched Mr. Giuliani and Ms. Powell on television, he told Suzanne Scott, chief executive of Fox News Media, “Terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear.”
Dominion’s brief depicts Ms. Scott, whom colleagues have described as sharply attuned to the sensibilities of the Fox audience, as being well aware that Mr. Trump’s claims were baseless. And when another Murdoch-owned property, The New York Post, published an editorial urging Mr. Trump to stop complaining that he had been cheated, Ms. Scott distributed it widely among her staff. Mr. Murdoch then thanked her for doing so, the brief says.
The filing, in state court in Delaware, contains the most vivid and detailed picture yet of what went on behind the scenes at Fox News and its corporate parent in the days and weeks after the 2020 election, when the conservative cable network’s coverage took an abrupt turn.
Fox News stunned the Trump campaign on election night by becoming the first news outlet to declare Joseph R. Biden Jr. the winner of Arizona — effectively projecting that he would become the next president. Then, as Fox’s ratings fell sharply after the election and the president refused to concede, many of the network’s most popular hosts and shows began promoting outlandish claims of a far-reaching voter fraud conspiracy involving Dominion machines to deny Mr. Trump a second term.
In its defense, which was also filed with the court on Thursday, Fox argued that by covering Mr. Trump’s fraud claims, the network was doing what any media organization would: reporting and commenting on a matter of undeniable newsworthiness. And it noted that many of its programs did not endorse the claim that the election was stolen.
“In its coverage, Fox News fulfilled its commitment to inform fully and comment fairly,” its brief said. “Some hosts viewed the president’s claims skeptically; others viewed them hopefully; all recognized them as profoundly newsworthy.”
The law shields journalists from liability if they report on false statements, but not if they promote them.
Dominion said in its filing that not a single Fox witness had testified that he or she believed any of the allegations about Dominion.
In a statement on Thursday, a Fox spokeswoman said, “Dominion has mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law.”