The Dominion lawsuit might change news media forever

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Dominion Voting System’s massive case against Fox News was allowed to go to trial following a ruling on April 31, as a Delaware Superior Court judge declared that the case was false.

False. Instead of the trial being about whether Fox News did or did not lie about Dominion, the case will basically be about whether Fox is responsible for the lies it told. That’s a really big distinction, especially when it comes to a case about slander. Historically, it's been really, really hard to find newspapers guilty of slandering other large companies because the U.S. really will only put restrictions on freedom of speech in the case of a big public figure is attacking a private individual. It's quite unprecedented for it to already be decided that yes, Fox lied about Dominion and yes, this is a harm to Dominion. The case is already half over, to some extent. Now, all that remains is to decide whether Fox did it of sound mind.

It's a big step in terms of bringing charges against news companies, especially since the entry into the mainstream of Trump's term, “Fake News.” Many news agencies, including Fox, CNN, and MSNBC have faced controversy over what their hosts have said. For MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, the defense required them to claim she just wasn’t news, and many hosts have used the same defense when placed under scrutiny for their claims.

And that’s where the Fox v. Dominion case gets far, far more interesting. By alleging that Dominion rigged the election, a move that Fox did not back down on until getting several orders, Fox put itself in a position where it directly impacted Dominion’s bottom line. Fox was putting Dominion in financial danger by alleging they had committed massive fraud. These are demonstrable damages; even if Dominion didn't lose any customers, this move could cause them future harm. This is only compounded by the findings that by granting their hosts' credibility, Fox loses the First Amendment rights that normally apply to free speech. They claim that they were making inherently newsworthy statements about an inherently newsworthy person — in their case, the U.S. government — only to be told that by elevating different hosts to the position where they were treated like endorsed reporting, they had violated the protections associated with being an unbiased news reporter. Fox claimed that the false statements they published were newsworthy because they came from the U.S. government, only to be told they still had responsibility to vet their sources.

That’s serious. It’s essentially stripping away Fox’s protections because they reported false information, as fact. While the courts usually have an idea of looking at things on a case-by-case basis, this is a very important precedent for Delaware and news media as a whole. If this case leads to significant monetary compensation from Fox, it will force news outlets to be far, far more careful about their opinion segments and reporting. That’s a serious shift from the more laid-back treatment media is used to, and it puts almost every opinion panel on other channels in danger. If there’s another major case of false reporting, like Fox’s reporting on Dominion, we could see multibillion dollar cases brought up again.

That might just be what the news industry needs. Television news hosts, from Tucker Carlson to Rachel Maddow to Anderson Cooper, are a mainstay in American political reporting. A talking-head who reports what happens and then tells you how to feel is fine so long as they aren’t liable for messing up, but this case could turn that on its head. That’s a really good thing — more unbiased, factual reporting, á la Associated Press, would help encourage both sides of the aisle to operate into the same reality. News would have to report news, and opinion would have to be clearly labeled as such. That’s a big step towards stopping the partisan divide we see today.

Dominion is now on its way to prove that Fox knew that what it said was wrong. If it can show a jury that Fox knowingly lied, it will be able to convince a jury to award them huge damages. Dominion needs evidence of that, and luckily it has it — a lot of it. If presented by a good attorney, they could bankrupt the Fox corporation.

Good riddance. Opinion pieces aren’t really much more than tabloids. If they lie, they deserve to be treated like a tabloid; if they lie knowingly and willfully, then they’re doing something wrong — they deserve to be punished. Yes, we are a free country and yes, the first amendment does apply to spreading misinformation. But the limits of freedom of speech are enshrined in the case law. You can’t yell "fire" in a crowded theater, and — if this case succeeds — it may be that you can’t lie to the public by presenting opinions as news. It's a big change in how the media treats their audience, and will alter the current landscape of rumors, gossip and misinformation entrenched in modern American politics.