The defamation lawsuit filed against Fox News might open a Pandora’s box of media scrutiny in the United States. Academics fear it could start new lawsuits calling other media organizations’ integrity and editorial decision-making processes into question.
At first sight, the much-talked-about $1.6 billion case appears to be all about money. Voting technology provider Dominion insists that conservative Fox News knowingly spread conspiracy theories about its voting machines. Dominion claims this destroyed its reputation. The trial is scheduled to begin in mid-April.
“Fox News lied and they will lose, I’m sure about that,” says Professor of Emerging Media Mark Neuzil. He was speaking to WPI fellows at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN.
The original lie traces back to former President Donald Trump. In 2020, he claimed Dominion’s failing technology contributed to his loss in the presidential elections.
Hosts and executives at Fox knew Trump’s claim was untrue. Still, the channel repeated his unfounded allegations in a bid to boost its ratings and head off competition from other conservative media outlets, like Newsmax and One America News Network.
How do we know that Fox News intentionally spread lies?
At the heart of the case is some unprecedented “smoking gun” evidence: private texts, emails and chats among Fox employees openly saying they knew Trump was lying. The communication was published after a judge ordered Fox to file internal documents from 2016 to 2022.
Academics believe the case could inspire other companies to file similar defamation lawsuits against media organizations in the U.S. A trend like that could, in turn, lead to journalists censoring themselves in editorial decision-making processes.
“If someone in the newsroom writes in an internal chat that a story contains a lie, then that comment could be pointed out later,” Neuzil says. ”This could expose the organization to paying damages if someone filed a lawsuit and that communication was published.”
Media Law Professor Jane Kirtley, University of Minnesota, voiced a similar concern in a recent interview for NPR.
Rob Hubbard, President at Hubbard Broadcasting, doesn’t think the Dominion case will have effects on his media organization. (Photo: Alexander Uggla)
However, journalists at some major media in the Twin Cities don’t agree. They distance themselves from Fox News, holding that it does not represent U.S news media in general.
“I actually don’t believe other media, like us, will be affected,” says reporter Regina Medina at Minnesota Public Radio News. ”We don’t lie to our listeners just to keep our viewers and revenues. We work differently than Fox News.”
Rob Hubbard, President at Hubbard Broadcasting, also says the Dominion case won’t have effects outside Fox News.
“For me, Fox is all about opinions and comments,” he says. ”It has very little to do with real news journalism. I don’t think this case is such a big deal [for other news media].”