What to know about Dominion’s legal fight with Fox News
Dominion Voting opened a new front Friday in the high-stakes clash over alleged Trump-inspired media disinformation by filing a $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News.
Here are the main questions and answers about the latest legal standoff to arise from former President Trump’s post-election falsehoods, which the lawsuit alleges were unlawfully amplified by Trump’s media allies to a global audience.
What is Dominion’s argument?
Dominion’s 141-page complaint alleges that Fox News hosts promoted — and allowed on-air guests to push — a false narrative in which Dominion figured as the “villain” in what the suit describes as a “manufactured storyline about election fraud.”
As a result, the company argues, state legislatures are now either pulling out of contracts with Dominion or reconsidering their business partnerships, potentially leading to enormous sums in lost revenue.
The lawsuit, filed in Delaware state court, identifies a number of media appearances by individuals such as Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani and political allies like lawyer Sidney Powell, each of whom faces separate defamation suits where Dominion is seeking north of $1 billion in damages.
In Friday’s filing, Dominion depicts its portrayal on Fox News as a kind of kaleidoscope of false claims. The company alleges the network “endorsed, repeated and broadcast” the baseless assertions that Dominion rigged the 2020 election, manipulated vote counts, engaged in a kickback scheme with election officials and that it traces its origins to former Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Dominion was founded in Canada.
Courts reviewing defamation claims must weigh free speech safeguards against protections that people and businesses enjoy against reputational damage resulting from false smears posing as statements of fact.
Dominion contends that Fox News clearly crossed that legal threshold by engaging in the “knowing and reckless propagation [of] enormous falsehoods” that would find purchase with “an audience deeply loyal to President Trump,” for the sake of turning a profit.
“Succumbing to these motivations,” the suit alleges, “Fox — both through the speakers it invited onto its shows and in its own voice through many of its most prominent on-air personalities, including, but not necessarily limited to, Maria Bartiromo, Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs, Sean Hannity, and Jeanine Pirro — defamed Dominion again and again.”
How is Fox responding?
Fox News has reacted strongly to the lawsuit by defending its work during the 2020 election.
“Fox News Media is proud of our 2020 election coverage, which stands in the highest tradition of American journalism, and will vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit in court,” the company said in an emailed statement.
In addition, Fox pointed to an interview it conducted after the election with Dominion spokesperson Michael Steel, in which he repeatedly disputed the election fraud allegations. That interview, from Nov. 22, was promoted throughout the network.
After a suit was filed against Fox last month by the voting technology company Smartmatic, the network issued similar statements and filed a motion to dismiss the complaint.
Fox did not immediately respond to questions Friday about whether it will be filing a similar motion to dismiss the Dominion complaint.
After the Smartmatic complaint, Fox canceled “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” its highest-rated program on the Fox Business Network. Dobbs, whose program included Trump and other administration officials as regular guests, had promoted election fraud theories on his show.
It’s unclear whether the programming move was directly related to the Smartmatic lawsuit. At the time, Fox said the cancelation came after a routine evaluation of its programming and was part of a plan to “launch new formats as appropriate post-election.” The network has not canceled shows hosted by Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro, two other named defendants.
Have there been other suits over the post-election coverage?
Smartmatic’s $2.7 billion suit against Fox News and several other defendants raises similar issues as the Dominion complaint, and the trajectory of both cases may parallel each other.
Defendants in the Smartmatic suit — Fox News; hosts Bartiromo, Dobbs and Pirro; and regular guests Giuliani and Powell — asked the court to toss the case and find that their statements were protected under the First Amendment.
“This lawsuit strikes at the heart of the news media’s First Amendment mission to inform on matters of public concern,” reads the defendants’ motion to dismiss in New York state court. “Following the 2020 presidential election, one thing was undeniably newsworthy: whether then-President Trump’s unconventional efforts to challenge the results of the election would succeed.”
The defendants argued in court filings that Smartmatic should be considered a “public figure.” If the court agrees, it would raise the legal bar that Smartmatic would have to clear in order to win its case. Fox News may make a similar claim regarding Dominion.
Under a landmark 1964 ruling in The New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court held that public figures who sue for defamation must show that the speaker acted with “actual malice” when they made the false statements at issue.
Statements that a judge deems to have fallen below this threshold are considered protected speech under the First Amendment.
Fox News may soon be joined by other media outlets that face defamation suits related to the 2020 election. Dominion has held open the possibility that it may sue outlets Newsmax and One America News Network for their role in airing Trump-inspired claims following the Nov. 3 election — and the voting company has not ruled out suing Trump.
Is this headed to court or a settlement?
Defamation suits, particularly those waged by public figures, are notoriously difficult to win, which could cut against Dominion. But a number of variables are still unknown at this point, including the willingness of both sides to expend the time, money and effort to litigate the case, as well as Fox News’s appetite for the unflattering story to continue making headlines.
A settlement that ends the case and recoups some of Dominion’s claimed losses could be the ultimate goal. And some observers are speculating that Dominion is looking for a settlement similar to the one Fox agreed to in the Seth Rich case.
In November last year, the parents of Rich, a slain Democratic National Committee staffer, settled a lawsuit with Fox News over conspiracy theories about their son’s death.
“Plausible Fox drives a dump truck of $ up to Dominion like it did in the Seth Rich case to make this go away,” tweeted Brendan Nyhan, a contributor to The Upshot at The New York Times.
Fox also isn’t the first news organization to agree to a large settlement in a defamation lawsuit.
According to Variety, one of the attorneys for Smartmatic helped to represent a company that filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC News. Disney, the parent company of ABC, later disclosed it had paid $177 million in settlement related costs in the case.
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