Fox News faces second defamation suit over election coverage
By Michael M. Grynbaum and Jonah E. Bromwich
Fox News and its powerful owner, Rupert Murdoch, are facing a second major defamation suit over the network’s coverage of the 2020 presidential election, a new front in the growing legal battle over media disinformation and its consequences.
In the latest aftershock of former President Donald Trump’s attempt to undermine President Joe Biden’s victory, Dominion Voting Systems, an election technology company that was at the center of a baseless pro-Trump conspiracy theory about rigged voting machines, filed a lawsuit Friday accusing Fox News of advancing lies that devastated its reputation and business.
Dominion, which has requested a jury trial, is seeking at least $1.6 billion in damages. Less than two months ago, Smartmatic, another election tech company, filed a $2.7 billion lawsuit against Murdoch’s Fox Corp. and named Fox anchors Maria Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro as defendants.
In a 139-page complaint filed in Delaware Superior Court, Dominion portrayed Fox as an active player in spreading false claims that the company had altered vote counts and manipulated its machines to benefit Biden in the election.
Those falsehoods were relentlessly pushed by Trump’s lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, in public forums, including appearances on Fox programs.
In January, Dominion sued Giuliani and Powell, accusing them of defamation. The company also sued Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow and a Trump ally who was a frequent guest on Fox and other conservative media outlets. Each of those suits seeks damages of more than $1 billion.
“The truth matters,” Dominion’s lawyers wrote in Friday’s complaint against Fox. “Lies have consequences. Fox sold a false story of election fraud in order to serve its own commercial purposes, severely injuring Dominion in the process. If this case does not rise to the level of defamation by a broadcaster, then nothing does.”
In a statement Friday, Fox said its 2020 election coverage “stands in the highest tradition of American journalism” and pledged to “vigorously defend against this baseless lawsuit in court.”
Dominion’s filing Friday opened what its lawyers called a new phase in its battle against its detractors, and Thomas A. Clare, a lawyer representing the company, said the Fox lawsuit was unlikely to be its last legal action. Law firm Susman Godfrey, which is known for taking cases to trial, recently teamed up with Clare’s firm to aid with Dominion’s defense.
Fox Corp. has filed a motion to dismiss the Smartmatic lawsuit, arguing that the false claims of electoral fraud made on its channels were part of covering a fast-breaking story of significant public interest.
“An attempt by a sitting president to challenge the result of an election is objectively newsworthy,” Fox wrote in the motion.
The narrative that Trump and his allies spun about Dominion was among the more baroque creations of a monthslong effort to cast doubt on the 2020 election results and convince Americans that Biden’s victory was not legitimate.
Dominion, founded in 2002, is one of the largest manufacturers of voting machine equipment in the United States. More than two dozen states, including several carried by Trump, used its equipment last year.
Allies of Trump falsely portrayed Dominion as biased toward Biden and argued, without evidence, that it was tied to Hugo Chávez, the long-dead Venezuelan president. John Poulos, Dominion’s founder, and other employees received harassing and threatening messages from people convinced that the company had undermined the election results, according to the complaint.
Fox News and Fox Business programs were among the mass-media venues where Trump’s supporters denounced Dominion. The lawsuit also cites examples when Fox hosts, including Bartiromo and Dobbs, uncritically repeated or vouched for false claims made by Giuliani and Powell.
“Fox took a small flame and turned it into a forest fire,” Dominion wrote in the lawsuit, adding that the network “gave these fictions a prominence they otherwise would never have achieved.”
Dominion’s lawyers Friday also cited an unusual argument made by Powell in a motion, filed Monday, to dismiss the separate Dominion suit against her.
In that motion, her lawyers asserted that because political language is often inexact, “no reasonable person” would accept Powell’s claims as facts. The motion essentially argues that her claims about Dominion’s voting machines were hyperbolic and therefore not defamatory.
Clare described Powell’s contention as “ridiculous,” but he said her acknowledgment that her claims were not factual could prove relevant to Dominion’s suit.
“Fox knew these were lies, but they made a deliberate decision to spread them to their enormous audience,” Clare said on a call with journalists.
Dominion says it recently lost major contracts with election officials in Georgia and Louisiana, adding that the company is now facing “the hatred, contempt, and distrust of tens of millions of American voters.”