Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Fox News attorneys exit the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center as jury selection commences for a trial to decide whether Fox News should pay Dominion Voting Systems $1.6 billion for spreading election-rigging falsehoods, in Wilmington, Delaware, on April 13.EDUARDO MUNOZ/Reuters

On Nov. 19, 2020, Rupert Murdoch watched with alarm as two of Donald Trump’s lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, falsely claimed that a wide-ranging conspiracy involving a Canadian company had rigged the presidential election for Joe Biden.

“Terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear,” Fox News’s owner wrote in an e-mail to Suzanne Scott, its chief executive. “Yes,” Ms. Scott wrote back. She added that top Fox hosts Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro agreed with Mr. Murdoch’s assessment.

Even so, Fox carried the entire news conference live. It was just one of dozens of instances in which the channel gave extensive airtime to Mr. Trump’s lie that the 2020 election had been stolen, despite private admissions by executives and anchors that the conspiracy theories were baseless.

This apparent disconnect will be at the centre of a blockbuster trial set to start this week in a court in Wilmington, Del. Dominion Voting Systems, the Toronto company that supplied voting machines to 28 states during the election, is suing Fox for US$1.6-billion.

The civil-defamation case is the first major legal attempt to hold accountable those who pushed 2020 election conspiracy theories, which largely led to the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. It could also define the limits on spreading disinformation in a country that typically provides broad latitude for freedom of speech.

Expected to last six weeks, the proceedings are sure to be a media circus of their own, with testimony from Mr. Murdoch, Ms. Scott and a long list of Fox’s top personalities.

The network is fighting back against the suit by warning that any finding against it could impose limits on freedom of the press. The media company contends that its airing of Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“Fox News remains steadfast in protecting the rights of a free press, given a verdict for Dominion and its private equity owners would have grave consequences for the entire journalism profession,” Fox spokesperson Jessica Ketner said in a statement.

Through its public-relations firm in Washington, D.C., Dominion declined to comment.

Gary Mason: Fox News continues to rot at its core, with only itself to blame

The company was founded in Toronto in 2002 by John Poulos, who still serves as CEO. Dominion rapidly expanded to the U.S., providing both machines that count votes and ones that can be used to mark ballots. Its U.S. headquarters are in Denver but it is incorporated in Delaware, a tax haven that is the nominal home to swaths of companies.

In the days after the 2020 election, Dominion became a central target of conspiracy theories among Mr. Trump and his supporters. They falsely tied the company to late Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez and leftist billionaire George Soros, and claimed the company had “flipped” votes, counting ballots marked for Mr. Trump for Mr. Biden instead.

To win its case, Dominion will have to prove Fox acted with “actual malice” by deliberately lying when it broadcast these claims. To that end, Dominion’s court filings are replete with examples, gleaned through the legal discovery process, of Fox personnel privately admitting the conspiracy theories were untrue.

Tucker Carlson, Fox’s most-watched presenter, for instance, texted that Ms. Powell was “lying” about election fraud and referred to Mr. Trump as “a demonic force.” Anchor Laura Ingraham agreed that Ms. Powell was “a complete nut.” Executive Raj Shah decried the “outlandish voter-fraud claims.”

The same anchors and executives, however, repeatedly put Ms. Powell and other conspiracists, including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, on air to present their falsehoods as fact. Fox staffers suggested they had to air the claims or risk losing viewers to other right-wing media, particularly Newsmax, after Trump supporters got angry at Fox for calling the election for Mr. Biden.

When some Fox reporters attempted to debunk the lies, the filings show, the reporters got in trouble. Kristin Fisher, then a White House correspondent for the network, was reprimanded by her boss for informing viewers of the Nov. 19 news conference that there was no evidence to back up the claims.

Dominion’s filings also contain what may have been the origin of claims that it was involved in rigging the election. A lengthy e-mail from a Minnesota woman named Marlene Bourne to Ms. Powell, which she forwarded to Fox host Maria Bartiromo the week of the election, contains the first known references to Dominion’s supposed role.

In the missive, Ms. Bourne purported to have gleaned her information from “dreams” and “the wind.” She also claimed that conservative Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, who died of natural causes in 2016, was actually killed during a “human hunting expedition.”

Fox’s defence is that it had no obligation to inform the public that Mr. Trump’s claims of election fraud were untrue.

“Dominion confuses the obligation to truthfully report allegations with a purported requirement that the media rebut their underlying falsity,” the company wrote in a legal filing. “No such duty exists.”

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles