In the months following the 2020 US presidential election, right-wing TV news in America was a wild west, a seemingly lawless free-for-all where conspiracy theories about voting machines, ballot-filled suitcases and dead Venezuelan leaders were repeated to viewers around the clock. .
It seemed to have little effect on venting the most outrageous ideas in primetime.
But now, sadly for Fox News, One America News Network (OAN), and Newsmax, it turns out that this brave, new world was not free from legal jurisdiction — with the three networks now facing multi-billion dollar lawsuits over their unfounded accusations.
In June, Dominion Voting Systems, which supplied voting machines to 28 states, was given the go-ahead to sue Fox Corp, the parent company of Fox News, in a case that could spotlight Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan. †
In the $1.6 billion lawsuit, Dominion accuses Fox Corp, and the Murdochs in particular, of allowing Fox News to bolster false claims that the polling station manipulated the election for Joe Biden.
Fox Corp had tried to have the lawsuit dismissed, but a judge in Delaware said Dominion had presented sufficient evidence to allow the lawsuit to proceed. Dominion is already suing Fox News, as well as OAN and Newsmax.
“These allegations support a reasonable conclusion that Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch either knew Dominion had not manipulated the election or at least recklessly ignored the truth when they allegedly led Fox News to spread its claims about Dominion,” Judge Eric Davis said. .
Davis’ ruling is not a guarantee that Fox will be held liable. But the judge made it clear that this isn’t a frivolous attempt by Dominion – and media and legal experts think Fox could be in big trouble.
“Dominion has a very strong case against Fox News — and also against OAN,” said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor who teaches constitutional law at Stetson University and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, an impartial law and policy institute.
“The reason Dominion is suing is because Fox and other right-wing news outlets have repeated vile lies that Dominion’s voting machines stole Trump’s 2020 election for Biden. But all these conspiracy theories about Dominion’s machines were just pure nonsense, and Fox as a news organization should have known that and not give this aspect of the big lie a megaphone.
“What’s especially bad for Fox is that [that] Dominion asked them to stop and correct the record in real time, and Fox continued to spread false representations about the voting machine company.
Indeed, in his statement, Davis noted that “other newspapers under Rupert Murdoch’s control, including the Wall Street Journal and New York Post, condemned President Trump’s claims and urged him to admit defeat”.
In a statement, a Fox News spokesperson said: “Restricting the press’s ability to freely report on the U.S. electoral process is in stark contrast to the freedoms on which this nation is founded, and we are confident that in this case will prevail as the First Amendment is the foundation of our democracy and press freedom must be protected.”
A possible precedent in the Dominion v Fox case can be found in a recent case involving Sarah Palin, who sued the New York Times. Palin alleged that the newspaper had maliciously damaged its reputation by falsely linking its campaign rhetoric to a mass shooting. In February, a jury sided with the Times, ruling that a Times employee had not acted with “genuine malice” against a public figure or with “reckless disregard” for the truth — the criteria needed to prove defamation.
But the Times win shouldn’t give Fox too much hope, Torres-Spelliscy said.
“In the Palin case, the New York Times quickly corrected the error about Palin that was added while an article was being edited,” Torres-Spelliscy said.
Fox News, on the other hand, persisted in the bad behavior and repeatedly shared myths about Dominion’s voting machines. This is probably why judges in several of these Dominion defamation cases have not dismissed them.”
Dominion isn’t the only company seeking damages from Fox and his contemporaries.
Smartmatic, an election software company that provided voting software to exactly one province in the 2020 elections, but was subjected to claims that it was founded “for the specific purpose of arranging elections” by associates of Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela who died in 2013 is suing Fox Corp, Fox News and associates for $2.7 billion.
Still, Fox News is the most watched and arguably most influential cable news channel in the US, and probably too big to fail.
But that’s not the case for the smaller right-wing networks OAN and Newsmax, both of which are also being sued by Dominion and Smartmatic. was innocent or guilty.
“I think OAN will be wiped out of court costs. Forget all judgment,” said Angelo Carusone, president and chief executive of Media Matters for America, which tracks right-wing media.
Carusone pointed out that OAN is already struggling to survive after it was dropped in April by cable company DirecTV — which reportedly accounted for 90% of OAN’s revenue.
‘We can already see them scaling back programming, laying off staff, cutting back the number of programs. So it’s pretty clear that they don’t have enough resources to get through a lengthy lawsuit.”
Newsmax, which is still run by DirecTV, is “relatively cash flush” compared to OAN, Carusone said — enough to survive a trial, if not to pay for the billions of dollars Dominion and Smartmatic seek.
In a statement, Newsmax said it had “reported on allegations made by President Trump and his surrogates and at no time did we report that these allegations were true. We have also reported on critics of the Trump claims.”
It added: “The Dominion case is an attack on a free press and would endanger all press outlets if it were to prevail.”
OAN did not respond to a request for comment.
As for Fox, the most important thing could be if the Murdochs are subjected to discovery — where she and Fox could be forced to hand over documents that may contain communications details — as part of the legal process, Carusone said.
Text messages obtained by the Jan. 6 committee have already revealed that there was communication between Fox News hosts and White House officials about the uprising — and it seems unlikely that’s all that was discussed.
“I think once you start pulling the discovery material, you’ll find that there was a lot of communication between the Trump people, both internal and external, about pushing very specific lies and stories,” Carusone said.
While Fox is more financially comfortable than OAN and NewsMax, it is not invulnerable. Fox News will renegotiate its contracts with cable providers at the end of this year, and Carusone said cable companies could use the lawsuit to lower prices.
The Dominion and Smartmatic cases will likely drag on for some time to come, and it remains to be seen how Fox News, OAN and NewsMax will respond.
As for the news channels’ conspiracy claims about electoral fraud, at least that’s one thing that’s already been settled.
The courts, the Department of Justice and election officials have investigated and dismissed the allegations, as has the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security.
“The November 3 election was the safest in U.S. history,” the agency said in a statement in 2020.
“While we know there are many unfounded claims and opportunities for misinformation about the process of our election, we can assure you that we have every confidence in the security and integrity of our election, and you should too.”
William Barr, Trump’s attorney general, put it in less refined terms.
The allegations of election meddling, Barr told the Jan. 6 commission, were “bullshit.”