Rupert Murdoch is in the headlines again, this time because of a lawsuit over Fox News's coverage of the 2020 election. This isn't the first time Murdoch's media empire has come under scrutiny. In fact, it's not even the only legal battle happening right now.
Who is he? Rupert Murdoch is a media magnate and the Fox News Channel's controlling owner (as well as one of the inspirations for the protagonist in HBO's Succession).
What's the big deal? Murdoch is known to be a hands-on proprietor of his news outlets. Now a blockbuster lawsuit is confronting him with the consequences of some key decisions taken by leaders of Fox News.
Voting-tech company Dominion Voting Systems is suing Fox News and parent company Fox Corp. for defamation, seeking $1.6 billion, claiming that the network broadcast baseless allegations of election fraud in the 2020 elections.
Murdoch has been called to answer for the practices of his media outlets before. News of the World — at one point a flagship tabloid paper for the Murdoch empire in the U.K — was the subject of scandal back in 2011 for reporting tactics that included hacking into people's phones. The paper shut down and Murdoch was brought before a British parliamentary inquiry, where he declared it "the most humble day of my life."
Another Murdoch-centered defamation suit is currently underway in Australia — but with roles reversed. In that case, one of Murdoch's sons, executive chairman and CEO of Fox Corp. Lachlan Murdoch, is suing an online publisher in Australia for defamation over a June 2022 article that referred to the Murdoch family as "unindicted co-conspirators" in the Jan. 6 insurrection. Lachlan Murdoch filed the suit the day after the news site paid for an advertisement in The New York Times challenging him to do so, so that it could use the case to test Australia's defamation laws.
Meanwhile, former Australian prime minister and the newly appointed ambassador to the U.S., Kevin Rudd, has spent the last two years lobbying for an inquiry into media diversity in Australia. He has taken particular aim at the influence of the Murdoch media, and called Rupert Murdoch a threat to democracy.
"[Rupert Murdoch] is responsible for Fox News. Fox News has played, by far, the largest single part in the polarization of American politics, in the amplification of political hatred. I would challenge anyone ... to nominate which individual alive today has done more to undermine American democracy than Rupert Murdoch."
In a statement to NPR, a spokesman for the Fox Corp. and Fox News said the Dominion lawsuit was more about generating headlines than what "can withstand legal and factual scrutiny":
"Their summary judgment motion took an extreme, unsupported view of defamation law that would prevent journalists from basic reporting, and their efforts to publicly smear FOX for covering and commenting on allegations by a sitting President of the United States should be recognized for what it is: a blatant violation of the First Amendment."
So, what now?
The Dominion/Fox News lawsuit is slated to go to a jury trial in April.
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.
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