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The $1.6 billion Dominion v. Fox News trial starts Tuesday. Catch up here

A person walks past the Fox News Headquarters in New York, Wednesday, April. 12, 2023.
AP Photo
A person walks past the Fox News Headquarters in New York, Wednesday, April. 12, 2023.

Dominion Voting Systems is suing Fox News and its parent company Fox Corp. for knowingly airing false claims that its machines rigged the 2020 election against then-President Donald Trump.

Updated April 16, 2023 at 11:52 PM ET
Conservative TV darlings Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and a slew of other Fox News stars and executives, including the network's 92-year-old owner Rupert Murdoch, may soon have their days in court in what stands to be the biggest media trial since the 1980s.

Colorado-based Dominion Voting Systems, a tech company that manufactures electronic voting machines, is suing Fox News and its parent company Fox Corp. for defaming it in the weeks following the 2020 election and irreparably damaging its business.

The trial, which could last up to six weeks, is now scheduled to begin Tuesday in Delaware after the court pushed back the start date by a day. Here's what you need to know.

Why is Dominion suing Fox?

Following the 2020 election, Fox News repeatedly broadcast baseless claims that Dominion's voting machines had flipped votes meant for then-President Donald Trump to Joe Biden. Fox hosts and their on-air guests promoted the falsehoods for weeks after Trump's loss – and even after the claims had been debunked.

Dominion alleges that Fox hosts and executives knew that those claims about its voting machines were false – or, at the very least, acted with reckless disregard for the truth – in a bid to rescue the network's ratings. After being the first network to call the pivotal state of Arizona for Biden on election night, Fox News saw its audience numbers plummet. (Many of its viewers were Trump supporters.)

How does Fox explain the repeated falsehoods over the 2020 election?

For its part, Fox holds it aired the claims of voter fraud because theycame directly from a sitting President and his surrogates. Its lawyers argue that any claim Trump made – including about Dominion voting machines – was inherently newsworthy.

Attorneys for Fox have also claimed that the First Amendment, which protects freedom of speech, shields the network from being punished for what its guests say on air – even "speech [it doesn't] think is right."

"FOX News remains steadfast in protecting the rights of a free press," according to a Fox spokesperson in a statement shared Friday.

Dominion, in a statement previously shared with NPR, said: "As long-settled law makes clear, the First Amendment does not shield broadcasters that knowingly or recklessly spread lies."

What's at stake for Fox?

Dominion is suing Fox for $1.6 billion. That figure isn't a huge dent in Fox's wallet; it's less thanhalf of the revenue the company took in during the last three months of 2022. Still, there's a lot on the line for the network and, according to Fox, the entire U.S. media industry.

Fox and some media attorneys warn that this case could have long-term ramifications for all U.S. media outlets.

Thanks to a 1964 Supreme Court ruling, there is a high bar to meet to prove defamation in the U.S. legal system. The burden of proof falls on the plaintiff. Dominion attorneys must prove that Fox leaders knew, or should have known, that the statements hosts and guests made against Dominion were false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth.

That high standard is known as "actual malice." It's meant to protect media outlets from being punished for reporting critically on powerful figures, including corporations and the government.

A favorable ruling for Dominion "would have grave consequences for the entire journalism profession," according to a Fox spokesperson in a statement.

But media law experts say that this is a unique case because of the mounds of evidence in support of Dominion's argument.

What do we know so far?

In a pre-trial ruling this month, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis asserted there is no question that the contested statements Fox aired about Dominion were false.

Thousands of text messages and email exchanges revealed in legal documents show that Fox personalities and executives knew the claims their hosts and guests blasted on air were false.

Two of those guests were Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer at the time, and Sidney Powell, a Trump ally and attorney. (Dominion has separately sued both Giuliani and Powell but there have been no rulings in either of those cases.)

Both appeared dozens of times across Fox programming in the weeks following the election and peddled baseless conspiratorial claims, including that Dominion had financial ties to California Democrats and that the company was created to rig elections in favor of the late-Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez.

"The whole thing seems insane to me, and Sidney Powell won't release the evidence. Which I hate," Carlson texted fellow hosts Hannity and Laura Ingraham a couple weeks after the election.

"Sidney Powell is a bit nuts. Sorry but she is," Ingraham replied.

The filings also show that Fox executives, including the elder Murdoch and Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, did nothing to intervene.

Asked by a Dominion attorney under oath whether or not he could have directed Scott to stop hosting Powell and Giuliani on Fox, Murdoch answered that he could have.

"But I didn't," he said.

What are key moments to look for in the trial?

While the judge has ruled that election-fraud claims Fox broadcast in November and December 2020 were false, Dominion attorneys must still surmount the high bar of actual malice — that Fox decision makers either knew or should have known that those claims were false, or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

The six week trial promises a star-studded witness list, including:

  1. Rupert Murdoch, controlling owner of Fox News and parent company Fox Corp.

  1. Suzanne Scott, Fox News CEO

  1. Fox stars Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro, and former star Lou Dobbs (Dobbs lost his hosting job in February 2021.)

Fox chief political anchor Bret Baier is also on the witness list. He is among a cohort of Fox stars named as likely to testify in the case.

Why haven't Dominion and Fox settled this case?

Of course, Fox and Dominion could choose to settle at any time. But at what price?

Gauging by what Fox has presented in court, the network's attorneys maintain the election-technology company's worth is nowhere near the $1.6 billion Dominion is asking for.

In legal filings, Fox has argued that the $1.6 billion figure "has no connection to Dominion's financial value as a company."

Plus, it remains nebulous who exactly at Fox News and at Fox Corp. would be responsible for allowing defamatory statements on air – if Dominion successfully proves those statements surpass the high bar of actual malice in court. Fox is sure to hammer on both points during the trial.

David Folkenflik contributed to this story.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Mary Yang
Mary Yang is an intern on the Business Desk where she covers technology, media, labor and the economy. She comes to NPR from Foreign Policy where she covered the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine and built a beat on Southeast Asia, Asia and the Pacific Islands.