That the Big Lie took another Big Hit in Dominion Voting System’s defamation filing against Fox News should come as no surprise, no matter how many Republicans — it’s still apparently more than half, according to the polls — actually believe that the 2020 presidential election was somehow rigged.
The question is how big a hit Fox will take, now that texts and deposition testimony from the network’s major hosts and executives — from Rupert Murdoch and Sean Hannity on down — show that they were fully aware that Donald Trump’s Big Lie was fake news even as they continued pushing the lie of a rigged election on their viewers.
If you haven’t seen them already — and you probably have — I have some highlights, according to Dominion’s filing.
Hannity on Rudy Giuliani: “acting like an insane person.”
Tucker Carlson, who, to his credit, had pushed Sidney Powell — one of Trump’s crazier attorneys — hard on his show: “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane.”
Laura Ingraham in reply: “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.”
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Murdoch: “Trump will concede eventually, and we should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can.”
By helping, Murdoch presumably means in the Georgia Senate runoff races that Republicans eventually lost, giving Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.
Carlson to Hannity after Fox White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked a tweet from Trump on Dominion: “Please get her fired. Seriously….What the f***? I’m actually shocked…It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
I’m not a law professor — although my daughter is, and that should count for something — so you shouldn’t expect any detailed analysis here on how the case might turn out. But I know, because of that pesky First Amendment, that there’s a very high standard for winning a defamation suit against a media organization. In New York Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that an organization has to be reckless and acting with, as they say, “actual malice.” Fortunately for the news business, the present court hasn’t — yet — overturned that precedent.
But if not a law professor, I am a columnist, and so I’m always ready to make a semi-educated guess. I mean, it’s my job.
Here goes: At some point, Fox will have to settle. Because how could they not?
As the Washington Post headline on a Philip Bump analysis of the situation reads: “A cascade of mistakes and falsehoods leaves Fox on the brink.”
Do you have to ask on the brink of what?
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Win or lose, Fox has already lost bigly, having risked whatever reputation for journalism it has left, just as Trump lost bigly in 2020. And while it’s never a smart move to write Trump off — and I won’t here — I have a vision of a Republican debate down the line in which Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, assuming he runs, and Trump have a major throwdown on the Big Lie.
I can’t see clearly enough to know who might win or lose that throwdown, but is it possible that neither would win? To this point, DeSantis has refused to comment on the Big Lie, one way or the other. Eventually, he’ll have to, and then how would the GOP base — which Trump and DeSantis would be fighting over — react?
As of now, here’s where we stand on the Big Lie, which has just had its worst week since the January 6 committee report was released. You may remember the report’s clear, and you’d think inarguable, contention that Trump not only lost in 2020, but that he knew he lost, that everyone in the inner circle — from his attorney general, Bill Barr, to his adviser/ daughter, Ivanka — had told him he had lost, and that the Big Lie is not some Big Misunderstanding but a Huge Lie and one that led directly to the January 6 assault on the Capitol.
Let’s start with the Georgia judge who just released limited parts of the special-purpose grand jury report on possible criminal influence in the 2020 election. As you might expect, the jury decided unanimously that no widespread voter fraud had taken place, and certainly not enough to overturn an election.
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And then there was this: A majority of the Fulton County grand jury also said it believes one or more of the witnesses (read: Trump toadies) may have committed perjury when testifying, and it suggests the district attorney might look into possible indictments. No names were named, but a decision on indictments is expected soon.
In any case, the legal heat on Trump, now coming from so many directions, just got that much hotter.
But Dominion’s lawsuit is another matter. The special grand jury heard only the prosecutor’s side of the story. In Dominion’s lawsuit, we see what Dominion says are direct quotes from Trump’s biggest backers admitting that they knew Trump and his team were lying and that they nonetheless pushed the lies. Furthermore, they objected to any real-time fact checking by Fox News reporters and were most concerned — and this is truly rich — their all-too-gullible audience would switch to, say, Newsmax if they didn’t keep up the lies.
Of course, Fox has to settle. Can you imagine seeing Carlson on the witness stand having to defend his and Fox’s indefensible behavior? I’d love to see Hannity testifying as to rigged machines, suitcases full of fake ballots, CIA-directed Italian satellites. Imagine Murdoch having to defend Trump’s repeated prediction — often heard on Fox in the run-up to the election — that the only way he could lose in November was if Joe Biden stole it.
And maybe the most damaging part of the quotes cited by Dominion have to do with Fox’s motive in lying, which wasn’t so much to help Trump — although, yes, they were there to help — as it was the fear of losing its audience to the even-further-right reaches of, say, Newsmax.
For Fox, the trouble began when its forecasters predicted that Biden would win Arizona and, therefore, the election. The forecast was early and it was bold and, eventually of course, it was proved right. But Trump came hard after Fox, and so did, well, you know, Trump’s defenders on Fox.
Here’s Carlson texting his producer on the prediction: “Do the (Fox) executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real … an alternative like [N]ewsmax could be devastating to us.”
Dana Perino texting on what she called the “RAGING issue” of losing viewers to Newsmax: “[T]his day of reckoning was going to come at some point … where the embrace of Trump became an albatross we can’t shake right away if ever.”
And Murdoch on Trump and Newsmax: “Everything is at stake here.”
As it turns out, Murdoch was right. Everything is at stake — even, or maybe especially, the actual truth.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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