ImageOutside the studios of Fox News Media in New York. The network has been accused of advancing lies that devastated the reputation and business of Dominion Voting Systems.Credit…Ted Shaffrey/Associated Press
By Katie Robertson and Jonah E. Bromwich
A judge on Thursday rejected an attempt by the Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox News Media to dismiss a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems over the network’s coverage of the company’s role in the 2020 presidential election.
In the ruling, Judge Eric M. Davis of the Superior Court of Delaware, where Fox is incorporated, wrote that he had denied Fox News Media’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit because it was “reasonably conceivable that Dominion has a claim for defamation.”
Dominion, an election technology company, sued Fox News Media in March, accusing it of advancing lies that devastated its reputation and business. More than two dozen states, including several carried by former President Donald J. Trump, made use of Dominion, a Denver company founded in 2002, in last year’s election.
Along with another vote tabulating company, Smartmatic, Dominion was at the center of a baseless pro-Trump conspiracy theory about rigged voting machines that gave the election to President Biden. The false claims were promoted by the president and his advisers, including Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell, who appeared on Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network.
In May, Fox filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that Dominion’s lawsuit threatened the news media’s First Amendment right to chronicle and assess newsworthy claims.
In his ruling, Judge Davis disputed the arguments put forth by Fox, including that its employees were reporting in a neutral manner on statements made by advisers of the then-president and that claims made on its channels were opinion, and thus constituted protected speech.
The judge wrote that he was not persuaded by Fox’s “neutral reportage” and “opinion” arguments. He added that the company either “knew its statements about Dominion’s role in election fraud were false” or that it “had a high degree of awareness that the statements were false.”
Judge Davis also noted that Dominion had objected in writing to Fox’s coverage, seemingly to no avail. The allegations made by Dominion in its complaint, he wrote, “support the reasonable inference that Fox intended to keep Dominion’s side of the story out of the narrative.”
A Dominion spokeswoman said in a statement: “We are pleased to see this process moving forward to hold Fox accountable.”
In a statement on Thursday, a Fox spokeswoman said, “We remain committed to defending against this baseless lawsuit and its all-out assault on the First Amendment.”
The 52-page ruling included examples of statements made on shows hosted by Mario Bartiromo, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and Lou Dobbs, whose Fox Business Network program was canceled in February.
The judge wrote that those hosts had provided platforms to people who were spreading the false narrative of election fraud involving Dominion and that the hosts’ own statements sometimes lent weight to the baseless claims. Also figuring in the court’s decision to allow the case to go forward was the fact that other Fox journalists had publicly stated the claims of widespread vote fraud were false.
“The nearby presence of dissenting colleagues thus further suggests Fox, through personnel like Mr. Dobbs, was knowing or reckless in reporting the claims,” Judge Davis wrote.
Barring a successful appeal of the ruling, Dominion now has the power to compel Fox to produce internal documents related to the issues raised in the suit and to have its employees testify in deposition.
Don Herzog, who teaches First Amendment and defamation law at the University of Michigan, said in an interview that Fox faced a decision: It could settle, which might be seen as an admission of wrongdoing, or it could go through the discovery process, which could eventually make its internal communications public.
Timothy Zick, a professor at William & Mary Law School who specializes in First Amendment law, said that Fox would be more incentivized to settle the suit than it previously was. “The danger for them is that a lot of embarrassing email correspondence and other documents will come out, if they don’t settle the case,” he said. Mr. Zick added that Dominion might not be willing to settle.
The prospect of the publication of Fox’s internal communications concerning its coverage of the 2020 election follows the recent disclosure of text messages sent by its hosts to Mark Meadows, Mr. Trump’s final White House chief of staff, during the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. On their shows this week, the hosts Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham vociferously defended the messages, which made vivid the close relationship between the network and Mr. Trump’s administration. Mr. Hannity and Ms. Ingraham said that nothing in their text messages differed from their public statements.
Fox faces another high-stakes legal battle over its election coverage because of a defamation lawsuit filed in February by Smartmatic.
The day after Smartmatic filed its suit, Fox Business Network abruptly canceled “Lou Dobbs Tonight.” Mr. Dobbs, a loyal supporter of Mr. Trump, was the host of the channel’s most-watched show.
In its suit, Smartmatic cited a false claim made by Ms. Powell on “Lou Dobbs Tonight” that Hugo Chávez, the former president of Venezuela, had a hand in the creation of Smartmatic technology, designing it so that the votes it processed could be changed undetected. (Mr. Chávez, who died in 2013, did not have anything to do with Smartmatic.) Mr. Dobbs had also referred to the supposed vote conspiracy as “cyber Pearl Harbor,” borrowing a phrase that had been used by Ms. Powell.
Source by www.nytimes.com