Apr 16, 2023 - Economy

America braces for historic trial between Dominion and Fox News

Illustration of a gavel with the center being a staticky TV

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Dominion Voting Systems tomorrow will square off in court against Fox News, more than two years after filing a $1.6 billion defamation suit accusing the network of knowingly airing disinformation about election fraud in the 2020 presidential contest.

Why it matters: The trial could set an important First Amendment precedent and shape political coverage by one of America's most powerful media outlets.

The big picture: Successfully suing for defamation in the U.S. is intentionally difficult — but legal experts believe Dominion has an especially strong case.

  • Dominion not only has to prove that Fox News made false statements, which it already has done, but also must demonstrate malice and that those false statements caused harm.
  • Unintentional errors, for example, wouldn't meet the legal threshold.

If Dominion wins: It could convince Fox News to become more cautious ahead of 2024 elections, particularly when it comes to ballot fraud allegations.

  • There also could be shakeups both behind and in front of the cameras at Fox News, as shareholders are unlikely to sit by quietly if a jury awards Dominion what it seeks or more.
  • A Dominion victory also could embolden others to sue media organizations when they feel wronged, although legal experts tell Axios the risk is remote.
  • "I do think it’s an uphill battle [for Fox]," University of Tennessee journalism professor Stuart Brotman said. "But you have some very powerful, famous media personalities testifying, and jurors can be captivated."

If Fox wins: Not only would it reaffirm America's very high bar for media defamation, but also would provide Fox News with a legal roadmap for airing future falsehoods.

  • The network has parted ways with one of the on-air hosts who allegedly defamed Dominion, Lou Dobbs, but continues to employee others, including Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro.

Either way: The trial could influence how Fox News defends itself against other defamation charges, most notably a $2.7 billion case brought by election technology company Smartmatic.

What they're saying: "In my opinion, [a Fox victory] would open our society up to a return to what used to be referred to as the yellow journalism of the late 19th century, like the Hearst newspapers that led to wars,” says Catherine Ross, a George Washington University constitutional law professor who focuses on the First Amendment.

Look ahead: Opening arguments are expected to begin at 9am ET on Monday, with a live audio stream available to those outside the courtroom.

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