Dominion Sues Fox News, Claiming Defamation in Election Coverage
Dominion Voting Systems, an election technology company, accused the news channel of advancing lies that devastated its reputation and business.,
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 Donald J. Trump’s attempt to undermine President Biden’s victory, Dominion Voting Systems, an election technology company that was at the center of a baseless pro-Trump conspiracy about rigged voting machines, sued Fox News on Friday for advancing lies that devastated its reputation and business.
Dominion, which has requested a jury trial, is seeking at least $1.6 billion in damages. The lawsuit comes less than two months after Smartmatic, another election tech company, filed a $2.7 billion lawsuit against Mr. Murdoch’s Fox Corporation and named the 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 falsehoods that the company had altered vote counts and manipulated its machines to benefit Mr. Biden in the election.
Those claims were relentlessly pushed by Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell, in public forums, including multiple appearances on Fox programs.
In January, Dominion sued Mr. Giuliani and Ms. Powell for defamation. The company also sued Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow and a Trump ally who was also 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 on Friday, Fox said that 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 on Friday represented what its lawyers called a new phase in its battle against its detractors, and Thomas A. Clare, part of the company’s legal team, said it was unlikely to be the last lawsuit filed. His firm, Clare Locke, has in recent weeks joined with the firm Susman Godfrey, which is known for taking cases to trial.
“We get in cases to try them,” said Stephen Shackelford, a partner at Susman Godfrey who is working on the Dominion case.
Fox Corporation previously 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Biden’s victory was not legitimate.
Dominion, founded in 2002, is one of the largest manufacturers of voting machine equipment in the United States; its equipment was used by election authorities in more than two dozen states last year, including several states carried by Mr. Trump.
Allies of Mr. Trump falsely portrayed Dominion as biased toward Mr. Biden and argued, without evidence, that it was tied to Hugo Chavez, the long-dead Venezuelan dictator. 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 Mr. Trump’s supporters denounced Dominion. The lawsuit also cites examples of Fox hosts, including Ms. Bartiromo and Mr. Dobbs, uncritically repeating or vouching for false claims made by Mr. Giuliani and Ms. Powell.
“Fox took a small flame and turned it into a forest fire,” Dominion wrote in the lawsuit. “As the dominant media company among those viewers dissatisfied with the election results, Fox gave these fictions a prominence they otherwise would never have achieved.”
Dominion’s lawyers on Friday also cited an unusual argument made by Ms. Powell in a motion, filed on Monday, to dismiss the separate Dominion suit against her.
In that motion, Ms. Powell’s lawyers asserted that, because political language is often inexact, “no reasonable person” would accept Ms. Powell’s baseless claims as facts. Ms. Powell’s motion essentially argues that her claims about Dominion’s voting machines were hyperbolic and therefore not defamatory.
Mr. Clare described Ms. Powell’s contention as “ridiculous,” but he said that it was now linked to the lawsuit filed on Friday. “Fox knew these were lies, but they made a deliberate decision to spread them to their enormous audience,” Mr. 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.”
Right-wing media has already faced a reckoning of sorts from the threat of defamation litigation, a relatively novel tactic in a battle against disinformation that had previously been limited to ad boycotts and liberal public pressure campaigns.
In February, two days after Smartmatic filed its suit, Fox Business canceled “Lou Dobbs Tonight,” its highest-rated program. Newsmax, a pro-Trump cable channel also facing potential legal action, cut off Mr. Lindell when he repeated falsehoods about rigged voting machines.
Taken together, Dominion and Smartmatic are demanding at least $4.3 billion in damages from Fox. Controlled by Mr. Murdoch, 90, and his elder son, Lachlan, the Fox Corporation reported that it had made $3 billion in pretax profit from September 2019 to September 2020, on revenue of $12.3 billion.
As a major media organization, Fox News enjoys robust protections under First Amendment case law, which often shields newspapers and broadcasters from being held liable for claims made by interview subjects. If a court determines that Dominion is a public figure, its lawyers would have to show that Fox acted with “actual malice” and “reckless disregard” for the truth, typically a high standard to meet.
“There’s a concern that imposing liability here on Fox could lead to the suppression of information that people have a strong interest in knowing about,” said Timothy Zick, a William & Mary Law School professor who specializes in First Amendment law.
In its lawsuit on Friday, Dominion argued that Fox had incentive to spread falsehoods about a rigged election, in part to placate pro-Trump viewers who were angered by the network’s early projection that Mr. Biden would carry Arizona.
Dominion also makes the case that Fox and its hosts benefited from uncritically repeating these baseless claims. The suit cites a postelection rise in ratings for anchors like Ms. Bartiromo and Mr. Dobbs, and notes that the ex-husband of Ms. Pirro, who spoke on-air of a stolen election, later secured a pardon from Mr. Trump.
Fox has argued that its reporting on the election should be should be viewed in its totality, pointing out that at least one host, Tucker Carlson, voiced skepticism about Ms. Powell’s statements. Lawyers said that Fox had been compelled to make a broad-based defense of its journalism rather than of particular language that might otherwise be indefensible.
“Fox has had a problem because a lot of its pundits have said the very things that have led Dominion to bring this lawsuit,” the First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams said in an interview.
The network has also argued that claims by the president’s lawyers in an election dispute were inherently newsworthy. “This lawsuit strikes at the heart of the news media’s First Amendment mission to inform on matters of public concern,” Fox wrote in that motion.
Mr. Zick, the First Amendment lawyer, said that Dominion had included an implicit response to that argument: “This isn’t neutral reportage. It’s disinformation for profit.”