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Fox News anchor Maria Bartiromo is front and center in Dominion’s defamation suit

By Stephen Battaglio Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Times

How do you solve a problem like Maria Bartiromo?

Fox News executives may be asking themselves that question as she emerges as a central figure in Dominion Voting Systems’ $1.6 billion defamation suit against the conservative news network.

In released court documents and deposition testimony connected to the case, Bartiromo is cited throughout for allowing former President Donald Trump’s false claims about 2020 election fraud to air on the network in an effort to stop angry viewers from abandoning the network.

Falsehoods such as the claim that the Denver-based voting machine maker was founded in Venezuela to aid Hugo Chávez and that its software manipulated votes to favor Joe Biden went unchallenged on the network in the weeks after the election, despite evidence to the contrary.

Court testimony shows that in the days leading up to and following the 2020 election, colleagues and executives raised questions about Bartiromo’s online activity and expressed concerns that she was influenced by right-wing conspiracy theorists.

Bartiromo’s texts, which showed up in court filings released Tuesday, said she was “depressed” over the results of the election won by President Biden and hoped to see fraud uncovered that would reverse the outcome.

“I want to see massive fraud exposed. Will (Trump) be able to turn this around. I told my team we’re not allowed to say pres elect. Not in scripts. Not in banners on air. Until this moves through the courts,” Bartiromo said in a text to disgraced Trump adviser Steve Bannon.

“U are our fighter. Enough with the sad. We need you,” replied Bannon, who then urged Bartiromo to run for the U.S. Senate seat held by Charles Schumer of New York.

On Nov. 5, 2020, two days after the election, Washington anchor Bret Baier warned Jay Wallace, who oversees news gathering at Fox News, that Bartiromo had been pushing false claims about the election.

Gary Schreier, a producer who has worked with Bartiromo since 2012, told his bosses that Bartiromo was influenced by Trump’s most extreme supporters.

“The problem is she has (GOP) conspiracy theorists in her ear and they use her for their message sometimes,” Schreier said in a text to Lauren Petterson, who oversees Fox Business Network.

That same day, Wallace was told that Bartiromo was sharing conspiracy theories about Dominion on the right-wing social media site Parler, to which he responded, “I don’t know why she invites this.”

When Schreier flagged a Bartiromo tweet espousing conspiracy theories for Petterson, she suggested Bartiromo should “get off social (media) all together.” Schreier agreed. In his deposition, Schreier said his comments were made out of a concern that Bartiromo was straying too far from financial news and that coverage of divisive political issues would scare away advertisers from her program.

Dominion is asserting that Fox News acted with malice by recklessly disregarding the truth when it presented the allegations against the company, stoking the emotions that led to Trump supporters storming the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Fox News maintains that its reporting and commentary was protected by the First Amendment because allegations presented by a sitting president are newsworthy, even if false.

Bartiromo is one of four Fox News and Fox Business Network personalities cited in the suit along with Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and Lou Dobbs, who is no longer part of the company. Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch admitted under oath that they all promoted false claims about the 2020 election, which he believed was fair.

But the difference with Bartiromo is she identifies as a news anchor, as she indicated in her testimony. Hannity, Dobbs and Pirro are considered opinion hosts, and executives at Fox News testified that they are not held to the same journalistic standards as straight news programs.

Schreier said opinion programs on Fox News have no obligation to correct falsehoods stated on their programs. Another Fox News executive, David Clark, told the court that Hannity – the network’s longest-running prime-time star – is not a credible source of news.

Bartiromo, 55, arrived at Fox News with a stellar background as a tireless financial journalist forged over 20 years at CNBC. She was a respected pioneer, being the first woman to report from the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. She joined Fox News in 2013 for an annual salary of $5 million.

Bartiromo is on the air for 15 1/2 hours a week on Fox Business Network as host of “Mornings with Maria,” and has the highest-rated Sunday morning program on Fox News with “Sunday Morning Futures.”

The anchor mostly talked to chief executive officers on her business programs, but became more political after moving to Fox News. Her conservative views became more apparent, and she is said to be beloved by Murdoch.

Bartiromo did not respond to a request for comment.

Before a court hearing Tuesday, Fox News lawyers presented new emails aimed at demonstrating that Bartiromo did not act with malice because she did not know whether allegations made by lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani on Fox News were true or false and that she had doubts about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Court documents presented by Fox News included comments made in an December 2020 email by Nicole Beckman, then an associate at Dominion’s public relations firm, Hamilton Place Strategies. Beckman said Bartiromo “hasn’t made any statements that seem to have a strong case for defamation because she is always careful about either quoting other people (‘a report issued says…’) or not mentioning Dominion specifically. She leaves it up to her guests to make defamatory claims.”

Bartiromo testified that no one in management did anything to stop her or force her to correct the record. While Bartiromo devoted time to the story, top executives, reporters and even Fox News stars such as Tucker Carlson and Dana Perino were saying privately that Trump’s claims were bogus and questioned the sanity of Powell and Giuliani.

Carlson – the most popular and outspoken carrier of the conservative torch at Fox News – was particularly eager to move on from Trump, saying in one text, “I hate him passionately.”

Much of the deposition testimony related to Bartiromo focuses on the appearances by Powell and Giuliani. The duo were given a platform in front of the “Sunday Morning Futures” audience of nearly 2 million viewers a week, where they amplified Trump’s false election claims.

Bartiromo herself made misstatements, such as repeating inaccurate claims that Dominion was owned by voting software company Smartmatic, which is also suing Fox News and other conservative networks for defamation.

In her deposition, Bartiromo maintained that she still does not know whether the many charges made against Dominion on her show were true or false.

She said she repeatedly asked Powell and Giuliani when they would provide evidence to back up their claims and stopped having them on after they came up empty.

But several Fox News executives in their testimony concurred with Dominion’s assertions that Bartiromo did not challenge any of Powell’s false statements when she appeared on “Sunday Morning Futures.” Bartiromo also admitted that she never presented any evidence to counter Powell’s claims, even though she was provided with correct information provided by Dominion and other Fox News journalists.

Abby Grossberg, Bartiromo’s senior booking producer at the time, was asked in court if she believed “Sunday Morning Futures” had an obligation to correct false information presented by its guests. Her answer was “no,” a surprising admission, as Sunday morning political shows are traditionally where viewers expect to see government officials held accountable.

Bartiromo also testified that she did not feel she needed to independently investigate claims by her guests before bringing them on.

While correcting guests in real time can be challenging, Dominion argued that Fox News could have edited out misinformation for repeat broadcasts. But the programs repeated unchanged.

On Tuesday, Fox News attorneys attempted to mitigate the evidence against the network and Bartiromo by submitting to the court emails between the anchor and Tony Fratto, another Hamilton Place Strategies executive and a former spokesperson for the George W. Bush administration.

Fratto, who had a cordial relationship with Bartiromo, sent a message after her interview with Giuliani.

“What Rudy is saying is verifiably false, and the same for Sidney Powell – it’s tinfoil hat conspiracy stuff,” Fratto said. “And I think they need strong pushback with facts. I’m not saying you should ignore the story, but Rudy is literally making things up as he goes.”

An email reply from Bartiromo asked, “Are you saying I should not cover a sitting president contesting a presidential election? Should I just blow it off & go with the rest of the media … ?”

“I’m not saying you should ignore the story … ,” Fratto said.

Bartiromo offered to have the Dominion chief executive on her show and read a lengthy statement from the company on her Nov. 20, 2020, show.

Fratto’s deposition testimony said his attempt to get Bartiromo to stop booking Giuliani and Powell had no impact.

He later wrote to Wallace, hoping to shame the network by comparing it to its upstart competitor Newsmax.

A court brief from Fox News said having some people in the organization who dismissed Trump’s claims did not mean those who did believe them acted with malice by presenting them.

“It is hardly unusual that some people in a newsroom (with the diverse political viewpoints one would expect) will disbelieve the allegations and hope that they ultimately prove false, while others will keep an open mind in hopes that they prove true.”