On its back foot in defamation lawsuit, Fox News hires new legal counsel
Fox News has hired veteran trial attorney Dan Webb to lead its defense against a defamation suit by Dominion Voting Systems over false claims made during the channel’s coverage of the 2020 presidential election.
The move comes shortly after an unfavorable Delaware Supreme Court ruling last month, which allows the outlet’s parent company, Fox Corporation, to be included in the suit filed in March 2021. The June 21 ruling said Dominion “adequately pleaded” that top Fox executives — Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan — had a “direct role in participating in, approving, and controlling” the airing of baseless claims of voter fraud perpetuated by former president Donald Trump.
A Fox News representative said the ruling was not a factor in the hiring of Webb, which was in the works for several weeks. The court admitted Webb to the case on June 30.
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Webb, co-chairman of the Chicago-based firm Winston & Strawn, replaces Chip Babcock, a Houston-based litigator who specializes in First Amendment cases. Webb‘s appointment is an indication that Fox News expects to go to trial in the Dominion case, in which the voting systems company is seeking $1.6 billion in damages.
“His vast experience in trial litigation will add depth to our legal team, ensuring the protection of the First Amendment and the fundamental right to a free press remain intact,” the company said in a statement on Webb’s hiring.
Webb, 76, has a long career of handling high-profile cases. He is comfortable interacting with juries and the media, presenting himself with a modest, Midwestern demeanor even as press accounts of his career described him as a “superlawyer.”
Webb most recently served as a special prosecutor for Cook County, Ill., handling the charges against Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” actor convicted of hiring two men to stage a hate crime against him in January 2019. Webb was appointed to pursue the case after the State’s Attorney’s office initially dropped the charges, outraging Chicago police officials.
In the 1990s, Webb prosecuted the government’s case against John M. Poindexter, who served as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan during the Iran-contra scandal.
On the corporate side, Webb has scored wins for Microsoft and General Electric. He has handled several major defamation cases, including one against ABC News relating to a series of 2012 reports on South Dakota meat producer Beef Products Inc.
While ABC stood by its reporting, parent Walt Disney Co. paid what was believed to be a significant settlement to BPI, which sought $1.9 billion in damages.
In 2018, Trump asked Webb to represent him as his legal problems mounted during the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Webb declined, citing business conflicts.
Webb now will have the task of defending Fox News in a proceeding that so far has not gone its way. Along with the June 21 ruling, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis previously denied a Fox News motion to dismiss the case.
According to a person familiar with Fox’s legal strategy who was not authorized to comment, the company is going to argue that the news division’s reporting on the allegations of voter fraud leveled by Trump and his lawyers was newsworthy and protected by the First Amendment.
While Fox News journalists reported there was no evidence of fraud to the extent that it would change the result of the election, several program hosts allowed Trump’s allies and lawyers Rudolph Giuliani and Sydney Powell to continue to promote theories that the election was stolen with Dominion’s assistance in rigging the results.
The government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency found no evidence that voting systems in the 2020 election were compromised. Testimony in the Jan. 6 hearings has shown numerous Trump aides and his own attorney general William Barr saying the level of fraud needed to change the election’s outcome simply did not exist.
Dominion alerted Fox News and its anchors and producers to information disproving the false claims being broadcast against the company.
Trump’s repeatedly discredited attempt to overturn the November results has been given continued sustenance by the Fox News star.
“Despite these efforts, Fox continued to promote known lies on its broadcasts, websites, social media accounts and subscription service platforms,” Davis wrote in his Dec. 17 ruling to let the case go forward.
The lawsuit claimed that one of the anchors named in the suit, Maria Bartiromo, “continued promoting lies even though she had been specifically notified that independent fact-checkers, government officials and election security experts debunked those lies about Dominion.”
Dominion will have to prove that Fox News acted with actual malice by reporting on the claims against the Denver-based voting machine company while knowing they were false.
Fox News is not the only conservative media company in legal hot water over the issue. Dominion has filed similar lawsuits against Newsmax and One America News Network. The outlets also are defendants in similar defamation suits filed by voting software company Smartmatic, which is seeking $2.7 billion in its claim against Fox.
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