Opinion: Murdoch’s mess: Fox News, lies and defamation

File photo/Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press / A headline about President Donald Trump is displayed outside Fox News studios in New York on Nov. 28, 2018. Documents in defamation lawsuit illustrate pressures faced by Fox News journalists in the weeks after the 2020 presidential election. The network was on a collision course between giving its conservative audience what it wanted and reporting uncomfortable truths about then-President Donald Trump and his false fraud claims.

I'm transfixed as the Fox News circus unfolds with the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit by voting machine maker Dominion Voting Systems against ringmaster Rupert Murdoch and his son, Lachlan Murdoch. We're now told that the Murdochs and their carnival acts such as Tucker Carlson all knew that claims of a stolen 2020 election were fraudulent. Yet they spread the lies that led to the violence of Jan. 6, with Carlson now perpetuating that date's bunch-of-tourists theory. And we Americans are stuck with the divisive mess. Maybe if we'd paid more attention to the Murdoch family history, we'd have halted the Fox circus before it fueled our culture wars.

Rupert Murdoch inherited a newspaper at age 22 and was already a media empire builder in Australia before expanding to the UK, where in 1969 he bought the best-selling newspaper in the world, News of the World. Denying accusations of "laws of the jungle" in the takeover, the questionable ethics of Murdoch and his son and heir-apparent, James, became increasingly visible. News of the World specialized in sex, drug and crime exposés using insiders and disguised journalists to provide photographic evidence, along with phone hacking. By 2011, the phone hacking extended to British soldiers killed in the Afghanistan war; the resulting public outrage and loss of sponsors prompted Rupert to shut it down.

As the scandal intensified, Rupert testified that he'd been unaware of the hacking. Unimpressed by claims of innocence, a cross-party parliamentary panel concluded that he "is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company." Several of his newspaper's editors were thrown under the bus, but Rupert had already spread his empire to America. Rupert, echoing his strategy of throwing staff under the bus, now complains that Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham went too far.

In the UK, Rupert cried "Foul ... partisanship!" inflaming Parliament's liberal/conservative divisiveness by railing against "some commentary that we, and indeed several members of the committee, consider unjustified and highly partisan." He's now doing another "foul ... partisanship" through Lachlan, who took over the lead from his brother James. Lachlan recently complained that all the "noise" from the Dominion lawsuit is just a "reflection of our divisive politics." In other words, partisanship.

Removing himself from the Murdoch empire in 2020, James said, "My resignation is due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company's news outlets and certain other strategic decisions." Distinguished reporter Chris Wallace also left: "I'm fine with opinion: conservative opinion, liberal opinion. But when people start to question the truth -- Who won the 2020 election? Was Jan. 6 an insurrection? -- I found that unsustainable."

Rupert now admits that he could have stopped Fox News from spreading election lies and claims that Dominion Voting Systems rigged the system against Trump. But he didn't, so you'd think that Dominion's lawsuit is a no-brainer. Yet a guilty verdict in the trial scheduled for mid-April is hardly a given.

Fox News now claims that it was simply reporting on the news of the day and lies were said without malice. Rupert, who fights according to the "laws of the jungle," could make this trial a battle-of-the-ages. Both sides want the trial judge to rule in their favor, eliminating a jury trial. Doubtful. And now there's a possible second defamation suit by Smartmatic, a UK technology company. This gets messier every day. Buckle up, everyone.

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@diversityreport.com.