Just about everyone in the media business is about to spend their work weeks with at least half an eye on the happenings inside a Delaware courtroom as the gargantuan defamation lawsuit filed by Dominon Voting Systems against Fox News goes to trial.
But those inside the PR business and those who are any part of the PR function anywhere should also pay attention. This could affect all of us.
This case seems exceptional, based on the evidence that has been submitted so far about how Fox News leadership from the top down, as well as hosts, apparently knew the truth and ignored it in order to pander to their audience, which they were afraid to lose after sharing the truth on Election Night 2020.
Here are the PR implications for this suit:
-It could provide a valuable case in point to clients (in the broadest sense possible) of what it takes to be successful in front of a court and jury in trying to win a defamation suit, something that gets kicked around, believe it or not, with relative frequency among those of us who regularly work with bad news. The truth usually serves as the protective gear that shields journalists and it’s up to PR types to explain that. Sure there’s a rare case, like this one, that leads to a settlement. But, more often that not, we have to join legal counsel in explaining that negative stories and defamation or not one in the same and that “demanding a retraction” almost never makes negative news go away. This case could provide a new, relevant example of the thresholds necessary.
-Heading into trial, Fox has already lost the litigation PR battle. While its core audience has been kept in the dark about this case, the consumers of the Fox-derided “mainstream media” know what’s going on. How can a channel with an aging audience grow its business beyond the 3 million or so who watch the opinion slinging and partisan agenda setting every night when everyone else knows what really happens behind the scenes? This must be keeping Fox bean counters awake, even if they aren’t trying to sleep on a My Pillow.
-Those of us who studied communications law in college or otherwise learned that thanks in large part to the landmark 1960s U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York Times vs. Sullivan, the legal standards for defamation are exceptionally high. Those of us who have made a living in communications have, one way or another benefited from that. No matter what have done during the explosion of the industry since that court case, the First Amendment has protected us. This case, depending on its outcome and where it ultimately gets adjudicated in the U.S. Supreme Court, as some legal experts speculate, could determine whether the defamation standards in this country remain.
This is a case that could force Fox’s ownership and executives to testify under oath about their business practices. The advice here is to not get caught up in fandom of either side. Pay attention to how this impacts your business too.