NEW YORK – Fresh revelations flowing from a major defamation lawsuit are shedding light on what was happening inside Fox News following the 2020 presidential election. Here are some things to know about the case.
Dominion Voting Systems is suing Fox for $1.6 billion, claiming the news outlet repeatedly aired allegations that the company engaged in fraud that doomed President Donald Trump's re-election campaign while knowing they were untrue. Fox contends that it was reporting newsworthy charges made by supporters of the president and is supported legally by libel standards. The case is scheduled for trial next month.
Dominion has produced evidence that prominent people at Fox knew the fraud allegations were untrue, even as they and the president's allies were given airtime to repeat them. Fox's Sean Hannity said in a deposition that he did not believe the fraud claims “for one second,” but he wanted to give accusers the chance to produce evidence. Fox founder Rupert Murdoch, questioned under oath, agreed the 2020 presidential election was free and fair: “The election was not stolen,” he said. Murdoch also said he was aware some Fox commentators — Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro and Hannity — at times endorsed false claims, but he did nothing to stop them.
The court papers have laid out a profound concern at Fox over the impact of its election night call that Democrat Joe Biden had beaten Trump in the battleground state of Arizona — a call that was accurate. Fox scooped its rivals on the call, but it infuriated Trump and many Fox viewers, who expressed their anger and began tuning in to rival conservative media outlets such as Newsmax. The call was making so many people uncomfortable at Fox that news anchor Bret Baier even suggested it be overturned and Arizona counted in Trump's column. The Washington executive responsible for the declaration held firm and was proven right — then paid for it with his job two months later.
In its defense, Fox has relied on a doctrine of libel law in place since a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has made it difficult for plaintiffs to prove defamation. Public figures, and Dominion fits that standard in this case, have to prove not only that the information reported was incorrect, but that the news organization acted with “reckless disregard” about whether it was true or not. Fox says Dominion can't prove its case, but some First Amendment advocates suggest the company has a strong argument. Their worry is that a prolonged legal battle would give the Supreme Court a chance to change libel laws that would weaken protection for all the media.
Trump has taken a keen interest in the case, judging by his social media posts. Always concerned about loyalty, and nursing a long grudge about the Arizona call, he has expressed anger at revelations in the case that many people at Fox not only did not support his fraud allegations but privately disdained them. Court exhibits released this week contained blunt, dismissive assessments of Trump by some people who thought they were involved in private conversations — including host Tucker Carlson, who said in a text message in January 2021 about the president, “I hate him passionately.”
Federal and state election officials, exhaustive reviews in multiple battleground states where Trump challenged his loss and Trump’s attorney general found no widespread fraud that could have changed the outcome of the 2020 election. Nor did they uncover any credible evidence that the vote was tainted. Trump’s allegations of fraud also have been roundly rejected by dozens of courts, including by judges he had appointed.