Tuesday, 4 Oct 2022

Sean Hannity and Other Fox Stars Face Depositions in Defamation Suit

The depositions are one of the clearest indications yet of how aggressively Dominion Voting Systems is moving forward with its suit against the media company.

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By Jeremy W. Peters

Some of the biggest names at Fox News have been questioned, or are scheduled to be questioned in the coming days, by lawyers representing Dominion Voting Systems in its $1.6 billion defamation suit against the network, as the election technology company presses ahead with a case that First Amendment scholars say is extraordinary in its scope and significance.

Sean Hannity became the latest Fox star to be called for a deposition by Dominion’s legal team, according to a new filing in Delaware Superior Court. He is scheduled to appear on Aug. 31.

Tucker Carlson is set to face questioning on Friday. Lou Dobbs, whose Fox Business show was canceled last year, is scheduled to appear on Aug. 30. Others who have been deposed recently include Jeanine Pirro, Steve Doocy and a number of high-level Fox producers, court records show.

People with knowledge of the case, who would speak only anonymously, said they expected that the chief executive of Fox News Media, Suzanne Scott, could be one of the next to be deposed, along with the president of Fox News, Jay Wallace. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, whose family owns Fox, could follow in the coming weeks.

The depositions are among the clearest indications yet of how aggressively Dominion is moving forward with its suit, which is set to go to trial early next year, and of the legal pressure building on the nation’s most powerful conservative media company. There have been no moves from either side to discuss a possible settlement, people with knowledge of the case have said.

More on Misinformation and Falsehoods

It is common for large media companies like Fox to settle such cases well before they reach the point where journalists or senior executives are forced to sit for questioning by lawyers from the opposing side. But both Dominion and Fox appear to be preparing for the likelihood that the case will end up in front of a jury.

The suit accuses Fox of pushing false and far-fetched claims of voter fraud to lure back viewers who had defected to other right-wing news sources. In its initial complaint, Dominion’s lawyers framed their lawsuit as a matter of profound civic importance. “The truth matters,” they said, adding, “Lies have consequences.”

The judge overseeing the case allowed Dominion in late June to expand the suit to include the cable news network’s parent company, Fox Corporation, potentially broadening the legal exposure of both Murdochs. Shortly after, Fox replaced its outside counsel on the case and hired one of the nation’s most prominent trial lawyers, Dan Webb.

A spokesman for Fox Corporation has said that the First Amendment protected the company from the suit, and that any attempt by Dominion lawyers to put the Murdochs at the center of their case would be a “fruitless fishing expedition.”

The network is “confident we will prevail as freedom of the press is foundational to our democracy and must be protected,” a Fox News spokeswoman said in a statement. She added that the $1.6 billion in damages that Dominion is seeking “outrageous, unsupported and not rooted in sound financial analysis.” According to court filings, Dominion estimates business losses at hundreds of millions of dollars and values the company at around $1 billion.

Dominion’s legal complaint lays out how Fox repeatedly aired conspiracy theories about the company’s purported role in a plot to steal votes from former President Donald J. Trump, and argues that its business has suffered considerably as a result. Those falsehoods — including that Dominion was a pawn of the Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez and that its machines were designed with feature that allowed votes to be flipped from one candidate to another — aired night after night as Fox hosts like Mr. Hannity and Mr. Dobbs allowed guests to make them on their shows, and in some cases vouched for them.

Legal experts say the case is one of the most potentially consequential libel suits brought against an American media company in more than a generation, with the potential to deliver a judgment on a falsehood that has damaged the integrity of the country’s democratic system and remains an article of faith among many Trump supporters.

Defamation is extremely difficult to prove in a case like this because of the broad constitutional protections that cover the news media. A company like Dominion has to prove either that a media outlet knew what it was publishing or broadcasting was false, or that it acted so hastily it overlooked facts proving that falsity, a legal standard known as demonstrating a “reckless disregard for the truth.”

Dominion’s legal strategy, which it has detailed in court filings, hinges on getting testimony and unearthing private communications between Fox employees that either proves such recklessness or knowledge that the statements were false.

The case has stirred considerable unease inside Fox all summer, as employees have had to turn over months of emails and text messages to Dominion lawyers and prepare for depositions. Other current and former Fox personalities who have been deposed include Dana Perino, Shepard Smith and Chris Stirewalt, who was part of the team that made the election night projection that Mr. Trump would lose Arizona, and the presidency as a result.

This is not the first time that Mr. Hannity has been in the middle of a high-profile defamation suit. In 2018, Fox was sued by the parents of Seth Rich, a former Democratic National Committee staff member who Mr. Hannity and others at Fox falsely linked to a hacking that resulted in committee emails being published by WikiLeaks. Mr. Rich was murdered in an apparent botched robbery in 2017, though conspiracy theorists tried to blame his death on Democratic operatives. Fox News later retracted some of its reporting on the story, saying it did not meet the network’s editorial standards.

Fox settled the Rich case in the fall of 2020, before Mr. Hannity could be deposed.

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