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Fox News faces mounting evidence in defamation case

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Hundreds of documents comprising thousands of pages have been released tonight in the epic $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News over lies about the 2020 election. Now, it's a lot to take in, but these documents are casting fresh light on how Fox News, its stars and its executives reacted in the days that followed the election. The network projected that then-President Trump would lose the key state of Arizona, and that became a bit of a crisis for Fox.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik is poring through these documents tonight with several of our colleagues, and he joins us now. Hey, David. I'm sorry to interrupt...

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Good evening, Ailsa.

CHANG: ...Your poring there.

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: OK. Before we dive into the details, tell us what we've got in the broadest brush strokes so far.

FOLKENFLIK: So this has been a case filed by Dominion Voting Systems. As you may have heard by now, it's a election tech company. It has these big machines on which a lot of votes are cast on - votes - states throughout the country. And Dominion says its reputation was brutally damaged by Fox bringing on these, basically, champions of President Trump to say that Dominion was involved in insidious fraud to cheat then-sitting-President Donald Trump of the election and to switch votes for him over to Joe Biden. None of this was true, of course.

The documents that have been released tonight in this cascade - sort of tranche after tranche of them - are texts and emails from people within Fox and outside Fox and between one another and at Fox Corp., as well as, in some cases, the sworn statements; that is people going from Rupert Murdoch on down gave depositions in which they were asked questions about their conduct under oath. And so that's what we're seeing. And why it matters is we're learning how people really are talking behind the scenes about all this and what they're thinking and what they're doing.

CHANG: OK. So what specifically are we learning tonight that's striking you right now?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, so there are a lot more details, and we're going to learn a lot more as the hours and days tick by. As you said, just so much material being - flooding us at the moment. You know, Fox, for the last 20 - what is it? - 28 years now has worn its contempt for the mainstream media very publicly on its sleeve as a calling card for conservatives who felt that the media didn't serve them very well. Well, it turns out, behind the scenes, Fox stars also have contempt for the journalists of Fox News.

You know, there are group texts that we've reported on before, little excerpts of Tucker and Sean and Laura Ingraham. Well, in group texts, they are trashing Arnon Mishkin. Why does that matter? Well, he is Fox's own head of its decision desk. That's the same decision desk that made the decision to call and project that Joe Biden would win Arizona on election night and kind of put it, seemingly, the general election, beyond Trump's reach. And that had this cascading effect, a really traumatic one for Fox and for those same prime-time stars of having them lose millions of viewers.

Meanwhile, you know, Fox News made a big deal earlier today that at one point, it turns out, Maria Bartiromo had invited, through a PR representative, for Dominion's CEO to come on after hosting lawyers making wild claims about Dominion on her show repeatedly. Well, her private notes to Steve Bannon, we learned tonight, indicate despair over Trump's loss; absolute despair. She wrote to him, quote, in early November, "I want to see massive fraud exposed. I told my team, we're not allowed to say president elect" - meaning Biden - "at all."

CHANG: Well, I know that you have been reading the sworn testimony of Rupert Murdoch, the controlling owner of Fox. What are you seeing there?

FOLKENFLIK: So Murdoch thought Giuliani was talking nonsense about fraud, but says he still supported putting him and another lawyer who spoke out on Trump's behalf, Sidney Powell, on the air. He said that he would never apologize to Dominion because they did nothing wrong; these were newsworthy allegations. And you also saw the erosion of lines between politics and news media, if there ever were any for Murdoch. He says the attorney general, Bill Barr, asked him to take one legal commentator off the air and that McConnell had asked for help in locking down certain desired Republican Senate candidates in the primaries and some wins for the Senate in general elections. It shows you Murdoch wasn't really distinguishing his interests there at all between politics and the news.

CHANG: That is NPR's David Folkenflik. Thank you so much, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.