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Fox staffer’s claims of sexism, coached testimony jolt defamation case

Abby Grossberg, who sued Fox News alleging discrimination and a hostile workplace, says she was ‘coerced, intimidated, and misinformed’ while preparing for her deposition in the $1.6 billion Dominion defamation case

The News Corp. building on 6th Avenue in New York, home to Fox News. (Kevin Hagen/Getty Images)
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WILMINGTON, Del. — It wasn’t exactly the first time that a Fox News employee had accused her employer of sexism.

But the content and timing of lawsuits filed late Monday by a booker for “Tucker Carlson Tonight” tossed an unexpected wild card into a roiling $1.6 billion defamation case involving spurious election-fraud claims aired on the cable-news giant that now appears headed to trial.

Abby Grossberg’s court filings allege that she faced discrimination as a woman at Fox, “overworked, undervalued, denied opportunities for promotion” and subjected to “vile sexist stereotypes.” But in her most explosive allegation, she claims Fox lawyers coached her to make misleading statements when she was deposed in the defamation suit to help the company shift blame.

Grossberg’s account could create an opening for Dominion Voting Systems — which is suing Fox over false claims of a rigged 2020 election — to question the credibility of her testimony and that of other Fox employees who have been deposed in the matter.

At a hearing in Delaware Superior Court Tuesday, Judge Eric M. Davis seemed to allude to Grossberg’s bombshell charges when he acknowledged the arrival of a new lawsuit that is “related enough to this case that they assigned it to me.” In addition to a defamation claim against Fox filed in Delaware, Grossberg also sued Fox in the Southern District of New York for discrimination.

RELATED: Judge sounds skeptical of some Fox arguments in Dominion lawsuit

A spokesperson for Fox called Grossberg’s suits “baseless,” saying, “We will vigorously defend these claims.”

Grossberg’s account of a sexist environment at Fox News echoes stories shared by several female employees in 2016 and 2017, when powerful network co-founder Roger Ailes and prime-time star Bill O’Reilly were forced out by allegations of sexual harassment.

She alleged that a senior male colleague scolded her for sharing too much information with Maria Bartiromo, the popular opinion host for whom they both worked at the time, and described the host in terms such as “menopausal,” “hysterical” and “a diva.”

Grossberg also claims that when she first started working for prime-time star Carlson last fall, she found the office plastered with large images of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “in a plunging bathing suit revealing her cleavage.”

But it is her allegations that Fox lawyers “coerced, intimidated, and misinformed” her as they prepped her to testify in the Dominion case that could potentially complicate that blockbuster legal battle.

Fox News-Dominion lawsuit: A timeline of the major revelations

Dominion argues Fox recklessly aired unsupported claims that it rigged its machines in favor of Joe Biden; Fox argues that it was simply reporting on newsworthy claims made by a sitting president.

Grossberg was subpoenaed by Dominion last year to discuss her work as a producer on televised segments in which Bartiromo and guests discussed far-fetched and unproven claims of election fraud. But in her deposition prep sessions, the producer claims, Fox lawyers “were displeased with her being too candid” and took extra time “to make sure she got her story straight and in line with [Fox’s] position.”

She said she was urged to give generic answers such as “I do not recall” and discouraged from offering explanations of how Bartiromo’s understaffed team was unable to keep up with warnings from Dominion about false statements they had aired.

By giving these “false/misleading and evasive answers,” Grossberg says she put herself at risk of committing perjury, while “subtly shifting all responsibility for the alleged defamation against Dominion onto her shoulders, and by implication, those of her trusted female colleague, Ms. Bartiromo, rather than the mostly male higher ups at Fox News.”

Fox lawyers — who briefly sought a restraining order against Grossberg to keep their conversations from going public in suit — said that Grossberg “proved unable to perform adequately” after a recent promotion and that she had been issued a written warning.

In an interview with The Washington Post late Monday, Grossberg’s attorney, Parisis G. Filippatos, said “her suit will reveal the truth, not the selected version of sanitized events that Fox is famous for.”

Is Sean Hannity a journalist? Role of hosts is key in Fox News lawsuit.

Fox placed her on leave Monday from her current job as a booker for Tucker Carlson’s prime-time show, Filippatos said.

Grossberg’s discrimination suit makes specific claims of an “overtly misogynistic” environment on Carlson’s production team, which she joined in September, where “the staff’s distaste and disdain for women infiltrated almost every workday decision,” her suit alleges.

In addition to the Pelosi swimsuit images, Grossberg alleges that male colleagues openly critiqued the looks and sex appeal of prominent female politicians as well as their own female co-workers, and that a boss asked her “uncomfortable” questions about Bartiromo’s sex life.

Grossberg alleges that when she complained about the environment to a superior, he responded: “We’re all under stress. This is Tucker’s tone and just the pace of the show.”

Details of Grossberg’s lawsuits were first reported late Monday by the New York Times.

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In Grossberg’s September deposition, Dominion lawyers asked her about the circumstances surrounding a Nov. 8, 2020, appearance by Trump-affiliated attorney Sidney Powell, who told Bartiromo on air that there had been “computer glitches” during the election and “fraud … where they were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist.”

Grossberg defended the decision to air claims like those that Powell was promoting, according to segments of her deposition made public this month. “We bring on people and they give their opinions,” she said. “Maria asked questions. The guests responded and gave their points of view, and it was up to the audience to decide.”

She told Dominion’s lawyers that the fraud claims were aired because her production team “thought the public deserved to hear what the current administration was saying.”

Grossberg first gained public notice in February, when Dominion filed a widely publicized brief that described one of its lawyers asking Grossberg if it’s important to correct falsehoods uttered on the show — and Grossberg replying, simply, “No.”

This, Dominion argued, was more evidence that Fox staff knew Trump election-fraud claims were false but did not convey that to viewers.

In fact, Grossberg said in her suit, she did not want to give that answer, but “she had been conditioned and felt coerced to give this response that simultaneously painted her in a negative light as a professional.”

After “writers at prominent media outlets called Ms. Grossberg’s ethics as a journalist and her professional judgment into question,” she alleges, she suffered anxiety and stress.

While Grossberg’s testimony and internal emails were cited prominently in briefs that Dominion has filed in its defamation suit, Fox’s lawyers made only a single, fleeting reference to her in their own defense filings, in which they cited an email of Grossberg’s to demonstrate that Bartiromo “reached out to sources and conducted research into the President’s claims.”

But Fox representatives have cited Grossberg’s testimony in communications with journalists to dispute some of Dominion’s legal claims.

Earlier this month, exhibits were unsealed showing that Powell had forwarded Bartiromo an email from a Minnesota artist that spun theories about an elaborate vote-flipping scheme and supposed connections between Dominion and top Democrats, as well as bizarre claims about murder and time-travel. Dominion lawyers have sought to draw a connection between this email — which its own author deemed “wackadoodle” — and the election-fraud claims that Bartiromo and Powell discussed on the air.

At center of Fox News lawsuit, Sidney Powell and a ‘wackadoodle’ email

Fox spokespeople, though, countered this argument in an email to reporters by pointing to Grossberg’s explanation, drawn from her testimony: “We never used [the email.] So this is just all hypothetical really. … This isn’t something that I would use right now as reportable for air.”

Both sides turned out in court Tuesday to ask the judge to rule in their favor. The hearing is expected to continue into Wednesday, and Judge Davis has not indicated when he will decide. But he also signaled — by making reference to topic he said will get discussed at trial next month — that he is unlikely to award the case to either Dominion or Fox.

Davis seemed particularly skeptical of Fox’s claims that its hosts were merely voicing opinions — not asserting false facts — when they told viewers that Dominion’s software may have manufactured fraudulent votes.

Yet when a lawyer for Dominion made the case that certain allegedly defamatory comments were statements of fact rather than protected opinions — therefore arguing that viewers would have been more inclined to believe them — Davis was skeptical as well.

“People can’t believe opinions. They can only believe facts?” he asked.

Sarah Ellison reported from Washington.