Lou Dobbs, one of former President Donald J. Trump’s most loyal media fans, abruptly lost his pulpit on Friday when Fox Business canceled its weekday television show that had become a frequent clearinghouse for unsubstantiated theories about election fraud in the weeks following Mr. Trump lost the 2020 presidential race.
Mr Dobbs’ decade-long tenure on the network ended just a day after election technology company Smartmatic filed a defamation lawsuit against Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Corporation and Fox News.
In the lawsuit, which seeks damages of at least $ 2.7 billion, Mr. Dobbs was named as a single defendant along with two other Fox anchors, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro. Smartmatic specifically cited Mr Dobbs’ program, which was so full of falsehoods about Mr Trump’s defeat late last year that Fox Business was forced to run a fact-checking segment that exposed some of its own anchor’s claims.
Fox executives failed to elaborate on Friday as to why they canceled Mr. Dobbs’ program, which was the top-rated show on Fox Business and attracted a larger audience than its competitors on CNBC. The network said in a statement that it regularly reviews its program schedule.
“There were plans to launch new formats as suitable by-elections, including at Fox Business,” the network said. “This is part of these planned changes.”
One person familiar with Fox’s decision said the network’s concern about Mr. Dobbs arose prior to filing the Smartmatic lawsuit earlier this week. But the person who asked for anonymity to describe personal personnel matters conceded that Mr. Dobbs’ extreme and unrepentant advocacy of Mr. Trump’s false electoral claims had put his position at risk, as had other moments. For example, on the day of the siege of the US Capitol, Mr. Dobbs described protesters as “walking between the rope lines”.
The cancellation came as lawsuits and legal threats rippled the landscape of media organizations popular with right-wing viewers. Dominion Voting Systems has sued two lawyers representing Mr. Trump, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, over false claims made in Fox News and other outlets that the company supported President Biden’s victory and is considering additional litigation.
75-year-old Dobbs became known as a CNN host and became a mainstay of business news on television. He began hosting his Fox program in 2011, lured by the network’s co-founder, Roger Ailes, and was watched by a soon-to-be-very influential fan: Mr. Trump, who shared the right-wing values of Mr. Dobbs, particularly the Anchors tough stance against uncontrolled immigration.
The men also shared an interest in questioning President Barack Obama’s birthplace, a canard that contributed to Mr Dobbs’ departure from CNN in 2009.
At the White House, Mr. Trump came to watch Mr. Dobbs’ program as needed. His allies learned that an appearance on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” would guarantee attention in the west wing. The president even patched the TV host during some political discussions with his White House staff.
Mr Trump, who was banned from Twitter last month, has been cautious on the topics he commented on since leaving the White House. But about an hour after news of Mr. Dobbs’ departure was announced, the former president made a statement to the New York Times.
“Lou Dobbs is and was great,” said Mr. Trump. “Nobody loves America more than Lou. He had a large and loyal following who will pay close attention to his next move, and that following includes me. “
Loyalty went both ways. On Thursday, his last day at Fox Business, Mr Dobbs spoke disparagingly about the leaders of the Republican Party because, in his opinion, he had shown insufficient loyalty to Mr Trump. He described Senator Mitch McConnell and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, Republican leaders in Congress, as “toads for the Democratic Party”.
Mr Dobbs remains on contract with Fox, but the network has no plans to get him back on the air, according to one person who has been briefed on his plans. Right now, a rotating group of hosts will be replacing Mr Dobbs in his 5pm slot. Anchors Jackie DeAngelis and David Asman will sit for him next week. (“Lou Dobbs Tonight” repeated at 7pm) The cancellation was previously reported by the Los Angeles Times.
Smartmatic’s lawsuit filed Thursday cited a false claim from a November episode of Lou Dobbs Tonight that Hugo Chávez, the former president of Venezuela, was involved in the development of Smartmatic technology and designed it to be the voices processed by it can be changed undetected. (Mr. Chávez, who died in 2013, had nothing to do with Smartmatic.)
The Chavez claim was made by Ms. Powell, who worked as an attorney for Mr. Trump and was a frequent guest on Mr. Dobbs’ program. She was also sued by Smartmatic along with Mr Giuliani on Thursday. Mr. Dobbs was also cited in the lawsuit for using the term “Cyber Pearl Harbor” to describe an alleged election fraud conspiracy, borrowed from the language used by Ms. Powell.
There are indications that the other hosts named in the lawsuit, Ms. Bartiromo and Ms. Pirro, are in a more favorable position in Fox management than Mr. Dobbs.
Weeks ago it was clear that defamation suits from Smartmatic and Dominion could be imminent. Since then, Ms. Bartiromo has been selected to audition for a new 7pm program on Fox News, and Ms. Pirro debuted a new travel program, “Castles USA”, on Fox Nation’s streaming service visiting castles across the country.
Fox is committed to tackling the Smartmatic litigation, saying in a statement, “We are proud of our coverage of the 2020 elections and will vigorously defend this unsubstantiated lawsuit in court.”
Don Herzog, who teaches First Amendment and defamation law at the University of Michigan, said it was possible that Mr. Dobbs’s rejection could help Fox defend the lawsuit. If Mr Dobbs had continued to discuss Smartmatic or promoted electoral fraud in his program, the network could have been liable for any new claims, Mr Herzog said.
Fox officials could also argue that the lawsuit alerted them to falsehoods that Mr. Dobbs helped spread. In a test atmosphere, Mr Dobbs’ cancellation of the program could help convince the judges that the network is acting in good faith.
Mr. Herzog said a responsible judge would counter that feeling: “A judge should instruct a jury that what Fox does later to show that they are acting in good faith, not whether they are acting in good faith, is not regulates a little earlier. “
Mr Dobbs’ sudden exit was so sudden that even the anchor who stood in for him on Friday, Mr Asman, did not appear to have been informed of the news.
At the end of the show at 5 p.m., Mr. Asman smiled at the camera, wishing his viewers a good weekend and adding a goodbye note:
“Lou will be back on Monday.”
John Koblin and Jonah E. Bromwich contributed to the coverage.