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Fox News v. Dominion Voting System: what to know about the would-be landmark trial

On Tuesday, April 18, in Wilmington, Delaware, the defamation lawsuit brought by the manufacturer of electronic voting machines, Dominion Voting System, against the US network Fox News went to trial.


Just before the two parties' legal representatives delivered their opening statements, however, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis announced that an out-of-court settlement was reached. Fox News will pay $787.5 million to Dominion Voting System.



Members of the legal team representing Dominion Voting Systems leave the Leonard Williams Justice Center on Tuesday in Wilmington, Del. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)


Fox News said it was pleased to have reached an "amicable" settlement with Dominion, also saying the deal "reflects Fox's continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards." 


Dominion chief executive John Poulos called the deal "historic." He said that Fox News admitted to lying ("Fox admitted to telling lies about Dominion that caused enormous damage to my company") and that the television network "now understands the consequences of spreading falsehoods".


Dominion sued Fox News in March 2021 and sought $1.6 billion in damages for the Rupert Murdoch-owned network's spread of conspiracy theories.



After the 2020 presidential election, Fox News spread unsubstantiated and admittedly false theories about Dominion. The network hosted guests who claimed that the company's machines were programmed with an algorithm that allowed votes to be moved from one candidate to another.



Dominion’s electronic voting machines (AP Photo/Andres Leighton, File)


The theories have been brought up several times on broadcasts by some of the network's most popular anchors, including Maria Bartiromo, Tucker Carlson, and Lou Dobbs. In recent months, however, some documents and chats collected by Dominion's lawyers have been released, from which it seems to emerge that the anchors and managers of the network were aware of the falsehood of the theories they were spreading.


According to Fox News' lawyers, the network was obligated to report allegations that, however unfounded, had been echoed by then-incumbent US President Donald J. Trump. Network attorneys argue that First Amendment protections granted Fox News the right to report that story.


The prosecution had to prove that Fox News acted with actual malice, i.e. knowing that the information was false and displaying a reckless disregard for the truth.



In the United States, it is extremely difficult for a news organization to lose a libel case. A historic precedent was set in 1969 by the US Supreme Court with the New York Times v. Sullivan sentence. Since then, the prosecution must not only prove that the news organization spread false information, but that it also did so knowingly (actual malice).



Fox News’ studio in New York (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)


According to most legal experts, however, the case presented by Dominion was very solid, thanks to the enormous amount of evidence presented by the company's lawyers.


Lee Levine, a career-long First Amendment lawyer who has defended media companies such as CBS and Fox, said during an interview with CBS: “I have never seen a case involving a public figure in which the evidence of actual bad faith to bring before the jury was stronger.”


According to another lawyer, Martin Garbus, an expert in cases related to the First Amendment, who was heard by the New York Times, the case presented by Dominion is extremely solid. Garbus said that "there has never been a case like this," and that whatever the outcome of the trial, "it's going to be a dramatic moment in American history."


Opinions about what the outcome of the trial had to be were mixed. Some legal experts argued that the evidence brought by Dominion was sufficient to convict Fox. Moreover, if the network won, it could have reopened the debate regarding the protections guaranteed by the First Amendment to journalistic organizations, which some consider too strong.


On the other hand, a possible conviction for Fox News could have triggered a vicious circle and induced other companies to file suit against journalistic organizations, setting a dangerous precedent.


According to Jane Kirtley, a former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, interviewed by The New York Times, "there has to be room for error" for newsrooms in carrying out their work.



The trial was scheduled to begin Monday, but Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis has given an additional day to allow both parties to hold conversations about the possibility of a settlement, which was finally reached on Tuesday.



A drawing of Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis (Elizabeth Williams via AP)


Fox News believed the $1.6 billion claim to be excessive and that it did not reflect the actual damages Dominion claimed it received. Dominion had also requested a public apology from Fox News, which would likely have undermined viewers' trust in the conservative network.


Had the trial been held, it could have brought several prominent Fox News anchors to the witness stand. The publication of documents and internal talks has already shown how Fox News has made several editorial decisions to pander to Trump voters, who represent the largest part of its audience.



Dominion Voting System, which had its first voting machine contract in 2009 and now supplies hardware and software used in 28 US states, has filed other lawsuits in addition to Fox News and Fox Corp (the largest company in which the television network is a part of). It also sued Donald Trump's lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, as well as media outlets Newsmax and One America News Network, for similar reasons.


Edited by: Ritaja Kar

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