The case has caused palpable unease at the Fox News Channel, said several people there, who would speak only anonymously. Anchors and executives have been preparing for depositions and have been forced to hand over months of private emails and text messages to Dominion, which is hoping to prove that network employees knew that wild accusations of ballot rigging in the 2020 election were false. The hosts Steve Doocy, Dana Perino and Shepard Smith are among the current and former Fox personalities who either have been deposed or will be this month.
Dominion is trying to build a case that aims straight at the top of the Fox media empire and the Murdochs. In court filings and depositions, Dominion lawyers have laid out how they plan to show that senior Fox executives hatched a plan after the election to lure back viewers who had switched to rival hard-right networks, which were initially more sympathetic than Fox was to Mr. Trump’s voter-fraud claims.
Libel law doesn’t protect lies. But it does leave room for the media to cover newsworthy figures who tell them. And Fox is arguing, in part, that’s what shields it from liability. Asked about Dominion’s strategy to place the Murdochs front and center in the case, a Fox Corporation spokesman said it would be a “fruitless fishing expedition.” A spokeswoman for Fox News said it was “ridiculous” to claim, as Dominion does in the suit, that the network was chasing viewers from the far-right fringe.
Fox is expected to dispute Dominion’s estimated self-valuation of $1 billion and argue that $1.6 billion is an excessively high amount for damages, as it has in a similar defamation case filed by another voting machine company, Smartmatic.
A spokesman for Dominion declined to comment. In its initial complaint, the company’s lawyers wrote that “The truth matters,” adding, “Lies have consequences.”
denied a motion from Fox that would have excluded the parent Fox Corporation from the case — a much larger target than Fox News itself. That business encompasses the most profitable parts of the Murdoch American media portfolio and is run directly by Rupert Murdoch, 91, who serves as chairman, and his elder son, Lachlan, the chief executive.
Soon after, Fox replaced its outside legal team on the case and hired one of the country’s most prominent trial lawyers — a sign that executives believe that the chances the case is headed to trial have increased.
Dominion’s lawyers have focused some of their questioning in depositions on the decision-making hierarchy at Fox News, according to one person with direct knowledge of the case, showing a particular interest in what happened on election night inside the network in the hours after it projected Mr. Trump would lose Arizona. That call short-circuited the president’s plan to prematurely declare victory, enraging him and his loyalists and precipitating a temporary ratings crash for Fox.
These questions have had a singular focus, this person said: to place Lachlan Murdoch in the room when the decisions about election coverage were being made. This person added that while testimony so far suggests the younger Murdoch did not try to pressure anyone at Fox News to reverse the call — as Mr. Trump and his campaign aides demanded the network do — he did ask detailed questions about the process that Fox’s election analysts had used after the call became so contentious.
The case was settled in 2017.
But Fox has also been searching for evidence that could, in effect, prove the Dominion conspiracy theories weren’t really conspiracy theories. Behind the scenes, Fox’s lawyers have pursued documents that would support numerous unfounded claims about Dominion, including its supposed connections to Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan dictator who died in 2013, and software features that were ostensibly designed to make vote manipulation easier.
According to court filings, the words and phrases that Fox has asked Dominion to search for in internal communications going back more than a decade include “Chavez” and “Hugo,” along with “tampered,” “backdoor,” “stolen” and “Trump.”
Eric Munchel of Tennessee, in which he is brandishing a shotgun, with Mr. Trump on a television in the background. The television is tuned to Fox Business.
But the hurdle Dominion must clear is whether it can persuade a jury to believe that people at Fox knew they were spreading lies.
“Disseminating ‘The Big Lie’ isn’t enough,” said RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor and First Amendment scholar at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law. “It has to be a knowing lie.”
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The leader of Project Veritas, Mr. O’Keefe, often uses surreptitious cameras and faked identities in videos that are meant to embarrass news outlets, Democratic officials, labor groups and liberals. In a statement on Friday about the judge’s ruling, Mr. O’Keefe wrote: “The Times is so blinded by its hatred of Project Veritas that everything it does results in a self-inflicted wound.”
In his new ruling, Justice Wood rejected the argument by The Times that the memos prepared by Project Veritas’s lawyer — which advised the conservative group on how to legally carry out deceptive reporting methods — were a matter of public concern.
“Undoubtedly, every media outlet believes that anything that it publishes is a matter of public concern,” the judge wrote. He added: “Our smartphones beep and buzz all day long with news flashes that supposedly reflect our browsing and clicking interests, and we can tune in or read the news outlet that gives us the stories and topics that we want to see. But some things are not fodder for public consideration and consumption.”
Justice Wood contended that his ruling did not amount to a restriction on the newspaper’s journalism.
“The Times is perfectly free to investigate, uncover, research, interview, photograph, record, report, publish, opine, expose or ignore whatever aspects of Project Veritas its editors in their sole discretion deem newsworthy, without utilizing Project Veritas’s attorney-client privileged memoranda,” the judge wrote.
Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., a lawyer who represents media outlets including CNN, said in an interview on Friday that the judge’s ruling was “way off base and dangerous.”
“It’s an egregious, unprecedented intrusion on news gathering and the news gathering process,” Mr. Boutrous said. “The special danger is it allows a party suing a news organization for defamation to then get a gag order against the news organization banning any additional reporting. It’s the ultimate chilling effect.”
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Fox News Media, the Rupert Murdoch-controlled cable group, filed a motion on Tuesday to dismiss a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought against it in March by Dominion Voting Systems, an election technology company that accused Fox News of propagating lies that ruined its reputation after the 2020 presidential election.
The Dominion lawsuit, along with a similar defamation claim brought in February by another election company, Smartmatic, have been widely viewed as test cases in a growing legal effort to battle disinformation in the news media. And it is another byproduct of former President Donald J. Trump’s baseless attempts to undermine President Biden’s clear victory.
In a 61-page response filed in Delaware Superior Court, the Fox legal team argues that Dominion’s suit threatened the First Amendment powers of a news organization to chronicle and assess newsworthy claims in a high-stakes political contest.
“A free press must be able to report both sides of a story involving claims striking at the core of our democracy,” Fox says in the motion, “especially when those claims prompt numerous lawsuits, government investigations and election recounts.” The motion adds: “The American people deserved to know why President Trump refused to concede despite his apparent loss.”
Charles Babcock, who has a background in media law, and Scott Keller, a former chief counsel to Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas. Fox has also filed to dismiss the Smartmatic suit; that defense is being led by Paul D. Clement, a former solicitor general under President George W. Bush.
“There are two sides to every story,” Mr. Babcock and Mr. Keller wrote in a statement on Tuesday. “The press must remain free to cover both sides, or there will be a free press no more.”
a novel tactic in the battle over disinformation, but proponents say the strategy has shown some early results. The conservative news outlet Newsmax apologized last month after a Dominion employee, in a separate legal case, accused the network of spreading baseless rumors about his role in the election. Fox Business canceled “Lou Dobbs Tonight” a day after Smartmatic sued Fox in February and named Mr. Dobbs as a co-defendant.
Jonah E. Bromwich contributed reporting.
The election technology company Smartmatic pushed back on Monday against Fox News’s argument that it had covered the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election responsibly, stating that Fox anchors had played along as guests pushed election-related conspiracy theories.
“The First Amendment does not provide the Fox defendants a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Smartmatic’s lawyer, J. Erik Connolly, wrote in a brief filed in New York State Supreme Court. “The Fox defendants do not get a do-over with their reporting now that they have been sued.”
The brief came in response to motions filed by Fox Corporation and three current and former Fox hosts — Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro and Lou Dobbs — to dismiss a Smartmatic lawsuit accusing them of defamation.
Smartmatic and another company, Dominion Voting Systems, became the focus of baseless conspiracy theories after the Nov. 4 election that they had manipulated vote totals in contested states. Those conspiracy theories were pushed by Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, serving as personal lawyers to former President Donald J. Trump, on Fox News, Mr. Trump’s longtime network of choice. Smartmatic, which says that the conspiracy theories destroyed its reputation and its business, provided election technology in only one county during the election.
also sued Fox News. Together, the two suits represent a billion-dollar challenge to the Fox empire, which, after Smartmatic filed its lawsuit, canceled the Fox Business program hosted by Mr. Dobbs.
“The filing only confirms our view that the suit is meritless and Fox News covered the election in the highest tradition of the First Amendment,” the network said in a statement late Monday.
Fox’s motion, as well as those of its anchors, argued that the mentions of Smartmatic were part of its reporting on a newsworthy event that it was duty-bound to cover: A president’s refusal to concede an election and his insistence that his opponent’s victory was not legitimate.
But the response Smartmatic filed on Monday, which runs for 120 pages, said that argument amounted to wishful thinking and that Fox had not covered the claims about Smartmatic objectively or fairly.
“The Fox defendants wedded themselves to Giuliani and Powell during their programs,” the brief said. “They cannot distance themselves now.”
Fox will have several weeks to respond to the brief, and a judge will eventually consider whether to allow Smartmatic’s case to proceed.