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The 'wackadoodle' foundation of Fox News' election-fraud claims

Fox News host Maria Bartiromo invited Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell on her show to discuss allegations of election fraud based on an email laying out claims even the writer called "pretty wackadoodle."
Slaven Vlasic
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Fox News host Maria Bartiromo invited Trump campaign attorney Sidney Powell on her show to discuss allegations of election fraud based on an email laying out claims even the writer called "pretty wackadoodle."

A woman who says the wind talks to her and put forth claims of election fraud in the 2020 presidential race that she admitted were "pretty wackadoodle" turns out to be a key source of allegations that Fox News presented, night after night, to millions of viewers late that fall.

Joe Biden's victory caused Fox News personalities to all but melt down on the air. Off the air, a sense of crisis pervaded the private conversations of the network's executives and stars. Viewers who supported then-President Donald Trump abandoned Fox in droves after its Election Night team became the first in the nation to project that Biden would win the pivotal state of Arizona.

Desperate to win back the Trump supporters, Fox News and the Fox Business Network turned at least a dozen times to a pro-Trump attorney named Sidney Powell who, when pressed for evidence, forwarded a memo entitled "Election Fraud Info" to Fox anchor Maria Bartiromo. Bartiromo hosted Powell on her Fox News show the day after receiving it.

'Like time travel in a semi-conscious state'

The author of the memo in which Powell and Bartiromo put so much stock offered detailed and utterly false claims of how Dominion Voting Systems helped rig the election for Biden. She also shared a bit about herself, writing that she gains insights from experiencing something "like time-travel in a semi-conscious state."

The existence of the memo, its enigmatic author, and her role in Fox's broadcasts surfaced in a devastating 178-page legal brief filed by Dominion Voting Systems and made public last week by a Delaware court. The election-tech company has sued Fox News for $1.6 billion for defamation over the airing of false claims that it engaged in election fraud.

Powell's source also volunteered that the wind tells her that she's a ghost, though she doesn't believe it.

The woman, who is not named in the legal brief, wrote that she knew the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had been killed during a week-long human hunting expedition at an elite social club. (Scalia, a favorite of many Fox News hosts, died in 2016 of a heart attack, according to local officials in Texas, where he died.)

And the woman asserted that the late Fox News chairman Roger Ailes and Fox Corporation founder Rupert Murdoch "secretly huddle most days to determine how best to portray Mr. Trump as badly as possible." By the time the woman wrote her memo, Ailes had been dead for more than three years.

Attorney Sidney Powell spread baseless election-fraud claims on Fox News after the 2020 election. To back up her claims, she forwarded Fox hosts an email from a source who admitted those claims were "pretty wackadoodle."
Drew Angerer / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Attorney Sidney Powell spread baseless election-fraud claims on Fox News after the 2020 election. To back up her claims, she forwarded Fox hosts an email from a source who admitted those claims were "pretty wackadoodle."

"Who am I? And how do I know all of this?... I've had the strangest dreams since I was a little girl," the woman wrote in the email shared by Powell with Bartiromo and Dobbs. "I was internally decapitated, and yet, I live."

This all appeared in the same memo that claimed Dominion's software flipped votes from Trump to Biden, and tied the election company to a conspiracy involving Democrats Nancy Pelosi, then the House speaker, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

"The full force of the email's lunacy comes across by reading it in its entirety," Dominion's legal brief states. "Spurred by the November 8 Bartiromo broadcast," the election tech company's legal team wrote, "the wild Dominion allegations entered the mainstream." Dominion began sending journalists and executives at the network regular messages attempting to set the record straight - and putting the network on notice, according to the filing.

David Clark, then the senior executive over Fox's weekend shows, later said under oath to Dominion's lawyers that he "would not have allowed that claim to be aired," had he known this memo was the sole foundation of the "crazy" theories.

Dominion Voting System's lawyers would not comment further to NPR. Fox News and parent company Fox Corp. declined to comment on the email. More broadly, Fox has accused Dominion of mischaracterizing the record and cherry-picked quotes without the proper context.

Fox hosts and executives ridiculed Sidney Powell and her claims, while giving them a platform

Fox News stars and executives privately reviled their newsroom colleagues who told viewers that such claims were baseless, because such fact-checks alienated viewers.

Yet in some of the same conversations, the hosts and executives ridiculed Powell and her election-fraud claims. Their private communications and sworn testimony were also part of Dominion's filings.

"Sidney Powell is a bit nuts," Fox host Laura Ingraham wrote to stars Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity on Nov. 15, 2020.

"Sidney Powell is lying," Carlson told his producer in a note the next day.

"Terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear," Murdoch texted to Fox News chief executive Suzanne Scott on Nov. 19, after seeing Powell and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani relaying unfounded claims of election fraud on the air. Scott agreed.

Others admitted under oath that they also shared those sentiments.

"[T]hat whole narrative that Sidney was pushing, I did not believe it for one second," Hannity said in a deposition conducted nearly two years later by Dominion's lawyers.

One of Dominion's attorneys asked Bartiromo while she was being deposed whether the email was "nonsense." The Fox News anchor agreed that it was.

Memo shared with Eric Trump, the former president's son, according to Dominion's legal filings

That's not how Bartiromo responded at the time.

On Nov. 7, just four days after Election Day, Powell sent Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and Bartiromo the memo. Powell appeared on Dobbs's show that day to push easily discredited conspiracy theories involving the CIA and Dominion. That night, Fox News followed other networks in projecting that Biden had won the presidential election.

Bartiromo replied glowingly to Powell, saying she had endorsed the information in the memo during a conversation with one of Trump's sons: "I just spoke to Eric & told him you gave very imp info."

The very next day, Nov. 8, Bartiromo invited Powell on her show and encouraged her to present her claims of fraud anew. "We've talked about the Dominion software," Bartiromo said to Powell on her show, Sunday Morning Futures. "I know that there were voting irregularities. Tell me about that."

Powell responded: "That is where the fraud took place, where they were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist."

She continued, "There has been a massive and coordinated effort to steal this election from 'We the people' of the United States of America."

Privately, Tucker Carlson texted to an associate that night, "[t]he software sh-- is absurd... Half our viewers have seen the Maria clip."

Bartiromo is a veteran financial journalist, with earlier stints at CNN and CNBC, where she became a star anchor. She joined Fox a decade ago to help give Fox Business greater cachet and respectability. She hosts 17 hours across Fox Business and Fox News each week.

Producer testifies 'wackadoodle' memo now not fit for air

Even before Election Day, Clark and Fox News chief political anchor Bret Baier separately told the network's top news executive, Jay Wallace, that Bartiromo was pushing false claims of fraud on social media.

By Nov. 8, Fox Business Network senior vice president Gary Schreier was warning the channel's president, Lauren Petterson, that Bartiromo "has GOP conspiracy theorists in her ear and they use her for their message sometimes."

As Dominion's lawyers noted, however, such skepticism about Bartiromo from senior executives did not inspire them to block her program that day or from rebroadcasting it hours later.

Bartiromo was not alone in possessing the memo; Dobbs received it too, and Bartiromo had shared that memo with a senior producer and top booker, Abby Grossberg.

Asked about it under oath by Dominion's attorneys late last summer, Grossberg said the memo "isn't something that I would use right now as reportable for air, no," according to the legal filings. Grossberg is now a senior producer and top booker for Fox's Tucker Carlson.

Two days after the fateful Bartiromo appearance, Powell turned up on Fox's air once more, this time on Ingraham's primetime Fox News show. Powell asserted, "We have demonstrable, statistical and mathematical and computer evidence of hundreds of thousands of votes being injected into the computer systems repeatedly."

She didn't. Republican and Democratic state and local officials disputed and disproved her claims. So did Trump administration election integrity officials - as did some Fox News journalists. No matter. Powell showed up on Fox News and the Fox Business Network airwaves again and again - with Dobbs, Jeanine Pirro, and Hannity, often explicitly implicating Dominion.

On Nov. 29, Bartiromo landed the first interview with Trump since Election Day, telling him, "This is disgusting and we cannot allow our elections to be corrupted."

Powell popped back up on Fox News the very next day.

"We've got evidence of corruption all across the country in countless districts," Powell told Hannity on Nov. 30, without presenting any evidence. "The machine ran an algorithm that shaved votes from Trump and awarded them to Biden. They used the machines to trash large batches of votes that should've been awarded to President Trump. And they used the machines to inject and add massive quantities of votes for Mr. Biden."

Powell was not the only Trump surrogate who had Fox's ear, or seen by its viewers, but her claims were repeatedly amplified, embraced, and given extraordinary air time. Bartiromo has never been publicly rebuked and has not been punished for her role in pushing these falsehoods; in January 2021 she tried out for Fox News' coveted 7 p.m. weekday slot now held by Jesse Watters. The next month, Fox forced out Dobbs the day after another voting tech company called Smartmatic sued the network.

Of Fox's main opinion stars, only Tucker Carlson directly challenged Powell on the air during the post-election season. "We took her seriously," Carlson told viewers on Nov. 19, 2020. "She never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of requests, polite requests. Not a page. When we kept pressing, she got angry and told us to stop contacting her."

Powell had spoken at a Trump campaign press conference earlier in the day in which she spun a web of already debunked false assertions. Carlson said, "She never demonstrated that a single actual vote was moved illegitimately by software from one candidate to another. Not one."

Even so, Carlson privately echoed Fox News executives angered by their news-side colleagues who publicly noted the false claims made by Powell and others publicly, including on Fox shows. They argued it fed the outrage of Trump fans toward the network.

On Jan. 26, 2021, three weeks after the violent siege of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters seeking to block congressional certification of Biden's win, Carlson invited on one of his main advertisers: Mike Lindell, the founder of MyPillow and a chief proponent of pro-Trump claims of election fraud.

Carlson gave Lindell plenty of time to make wild claims about Twitter, the media, and Dominion. On Carlson's show, Lindell dared Dominion to sue him, saying he had the evidence of voting fraud but "they don't want to talk about that."

"No, they don't," Carlson said tersely. Dominion filed its lawsuit against Fox News two months later.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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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.
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