Fox News host Sean Hannity has given back and forth to being a journalist over the years.
When asked about his close relationship with then-presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016, Hannity told The New York Times, “I never claimed to be a journalist.” A year later, he refined his answer: “I’m a journalist. But I’m an advocacy journalist or an opinion journalist. I want to give my audience the best shows possible.”
Now, the ability of the network’s highest-paid star to convince a court of his journalistic credentials could be crucial to Rupert Murdoch-controlled Fox News’ ability to win a $1.6bn defamation lawsuit in the 2020 election.
Hannity is one of several prominent Fox News personalities removed in the high-stakes case of voting machine maker Dominion Voting Systems, whose machines were used in 28-state elections.
Dominion alleges Fox News has circulated libelous claims that its software and algorithms manipulated vote counting, that the company had ties to late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez, and that it had bribed government officials.
But during a recent seven-hour barbecue under oath, Hannity declined to answer some questions citing “reporter privilege,” arguing he was trying to protect his sources, according to public court documents.
Reporters are generally credited with having some First Amendment rights, although the protections afforded vary by state and jurisdiction. Dominion’s attorneys claimed Hannity’s stance in the case was an “invalid assertion” of reporter privilege.
The dispute is at the center of the high-profile lawsuit against America’s most influential news network, which Fox has framed as a press freedom referendum.
Lawyers and academics say the case has far-reaching implications for defamation law and journalism in the US, and whether there are implications for spreading an untruth that threatens democratic institutions.
“This case will undoubtedly go down as one of the most consequential libel acts in our country’s history,” said RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor at the University of Utah.
“[It] important, not only because it addresses an extremely important issue of public interest, but also because they test the outer limits of the constitutional privilege we accord to journalists. . . who speak out on matters of public interest,” added Andersen Jones.
The legal challenge hangs over Fox News as 91-year-old Murdoch, who controls Fox, seeks to merge the company with News Corp. to merge. Neither Fox nor Dominion are seeking a settlement and both intend to fight the process, according to people familiar with the matter.
In a trial scheduled for April 2023 in Delaware, Fox attorneys are expected to argue that then-President Trump’s allegations of widespread voter fraud were highly newsworthy; that his hosts were merely reporting on a crucial development in the electoral process; that Fox broadcast Dominion’s response to the allegations; and that the station stopped repeating the Trump campaign’s claims once it became clear that there was no evidence to support them.
The defense is also likely to reiterate Fox News’ long-standing claim that its programming includes both news from journalists like Bret Baier and opinions from the likes of Tucker Carlson and Hannity, who Dominion says has a contract worth up to $40 million a year have lawsuit.
For years, critics have questioned whether some Fox News anchors are actually journalists, arguing that they are instead allies of conservative politicians and are pushing a political agenda to large audiences across the country. David Frum, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, said in 2010, “Republicans originally thought Fox was working for us, and now we’re discovering that we work for Fox.”
However, legal experts say Dominion faces an uphill battle due to strong U.S. intelligence agencies over discourse on matters of public interest. “You have to prove Fox knew about it [the voter fraud allegation] was wrong; they have to prove actual malice,” said a prominent media advocate.
“It is not enough that there is evidence of a lie. It has to be a deliberate lie,” said Andersen Jones of the University of Utah. “It’s the first time in a long time. . . that there is evidence that even this very high bar could be reached.”
As such, gaining access to Hannity and others and their communications at the time is critical, Dominion’s legal team says. In recent months, they have dropped Fox stars like Carlson, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and Steve Doocy, as well as Murdoch’s son James, according to court documents.
During the post-election chaos of 2020, Fox News executive Suzanne Scott sent out a message warning “we can’t give the lunatics a toll” regarding Trump supporters, Dominion said at a hearing last month, National Public reported Radio. A record of that hearing has since been sealed by the judge.
In public court filings, Fox attorneys say that Dominion “intends to mislead the public with well-chosen (and mislabeled) non-public documents long before it has to bear its burden of proof in court.”
Dominion’s original complaint alleged that Hannity allowed a guest, former Trump attorney Sidney Powell, to claim on a live broadcast that the company’s voting machines “ran an algorithm that shaved votes from Trump and they shaved Biden.” awarded”.
The company alleges that Hannity “did not correct Powell or inform his millions of viewers that he and his show’s producers saw direct evidence disproving these false claims.”
However, Hannity, who has worked for Fox since 1996, declined to answer specific questions about the episode, according to a heavily redacted request from Dominion.
In a response to the court, Hannity said, “Individuals have asked that I keep their names and certain news-gathering information confidential, and I have agreed to those requests.”
It’s unclear if the court will force Hannity’s impeachment again. Fox News said it was “confident that we will prevail as freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and needs to be protected, on top of the outrageous, unsupported and unsupported claims for damages that serve only as a flagrant attempt.” to keep our journalists from their work”.
Dominion declined to comment.