Why Dominion is already the winner of the $1.6bn lawsuit against Fox News

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA</span>
Photograph: Justin Lane/EPA

As Fox News continued to broadcast lies about Dominion voting systems and the 2020 election, Tucker Carlson, one of its star hosts used one word over and over to describe what the network was doing – “reckless”.

Those messages were the first pieces of evidence Justin Nelson, a lawyer representing Dominion, displayed on Tuesday as he began his argument for why a judge should rule the network defamed his client. “Reckless was a meaningful word” – in order to win the case, Nelson has to prove that Fox acted with “actual malice” – that its hosts, producers and executives knew the statements were false or acted with reckless disregard to the truth.

Related: Dominion lawsuit is just the start as Fox faces losing friends – and viewers

“Unlike every other single defamation case, we have in their own words the fact that they knew it was false,” Nelson said.

It was an example that illustrated how the core of Dominion’s $1.6bn case against Fox are the words that came from the mouths of Fox’s employees. Regardless of what happens in the case going forward, Dominion may have already won: the messages offer a significant historical record of how top officials at one of America’s most powerful media organization aired information they knew was false when American democracy was under attack.

The case has received an extraordinary amount of public attention and represents one of the most aggressive efforts to hold a party accountable for efforts to overturn the 2020 election, which culminated in the violent insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January.

There was the Fox employee who reviewed a script for Jeanine Pirro’s show and wrote that it was “rife with conspiracies”. There was the internal fact-checking operation, the Brain Room, which debunked the claims about Dominion and circulated it to Fox employees. There was another Fox employee who joked he was so familiar with fact-checked emails he received from Dominion that he had them “tattooed” on his body. There was the Fox employee who noted that any time Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell came on the network it was “guaranteed gold”, even as the network knew the claims they were pushing were false.

Fox’s defamation defenses, while potentially legally potent, will not wipe out what has already been revealed. Erin Murphy, a lawyer representing the network, said in court this week that Fox cannot be held liable because it was merely airing allegations from representatives of the sitting president. Any reasonable viewer, she said, would have understood that they were allegations. Even if top Fox executives were generally aware of what was being broadcast and didn’t believe it, Murphy argued, that’s not enough to hold them liable. Eric Davis, the Delaware judge seemed skeptical of some those arguments.

Tucker Carlson’s messages, Murphy pressed on, aren’t really relevant to whether other Fox officials knowingly broadcast false information.

A jury will ultimately decide on the liability issues, but seeing one of the network’s most visible stars forcefully disagreeing with what was going on on-air will probably be what endures in the mind of the American public.

Undergirding the litigation is also a dueling vision about the power of Fox and the role that it plays in American media. As Murphy, Fox’s lawyer, told it, Fox is just another news network where conservative opinions are sometimes sprinkled in on air. Its decision to air the allegations about Dominion were merely an attempt to help its viewers understand, she said, once comparing their work to C-Span, which strictly airs political proceedings with no commentary or narrative.

But Dominion’s lawyers painted a more realistic picture of Fox, emphasizing the immense influence it has among conservatives. When the network chose to air the false claims about Dominion, it wasn’t just airing allegations, the lawyers said, it was pumping it into the veins of the American public. Fox didn’t just give Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani airtime, the network made them household names.

There was a “deliberate decision … to release the kraken,” Rodney Smolla, another Dominion lawyer said on Tuesday, quoting Powell.

Stephen Shackleford, another Dominion lawyer, made a similar point in his argument on Wednesday. He noted that when Powell began appearing on Fox, she hadn’t been formally hired by Trump and was being shut out of meetings at the White House. Fox still chose to give her a platform.

“Sidney was hunting for someone to make her relevant and Fox made her relevant,” said Shackleford. “While it doesn’t matter legally, the historical record needs to be clear.”

The full trial in the case is scheduled to begin on 17 April.