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Fox News is fighting a $1.6 billion lawsuit. But advertisers haven't shied away

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Fox News is in a weird spot. The network is covering former President Donald Trump's 2024 campaign, but they're doing so while they're also in court fighting a $1.6 billion defamation suit over airing lies about election fraud that go back to 2020. We're joined now by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik, who is covering that trial. Hi, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Miles.

PARKS: So let's talk about what happened in court last week. You were there in Delaware. What played out?

FOLKENFLIK: So last week, what are called pretrial arguments, in which Fox is saying, we have so much evidence. We have the First Amendment on our side. This has not got any substance to it. Dismiss the case. And Dominion Voting Systems says, look, we have developed so much evidence that not only did Fox's guests, not only did Fox's hosts say things about us claiming that we were throwing votes from then-President Trump to Joe Biden - baselessly, no proof of that, didn't happen - but we can show that the network did so intentionally and that its producers and stars and executives and even its corporate bosses signed on to win back Trump voters who were ticked off about the coverage from election night. You should do it in our favor.

Now, that's not going to happen. But what was really interesting was the degree to which Judge Eric Davis of Delaware Superior Court called Fox's lawyers out in a couple of different ways. And first, he just said - you know, essentially he was saying, is there no limit to holding people accountable under defamation for lies, under the way in which we interpret the First Amendment and what's called actual malice, which is a tough bar to surmount in order to prove defamation? And secondly, he kept pulling the lawyers back to reality and saying, look, let's look at the actual statements here. At one point he said, you guys have a Lou Dobbs problem. Lou Dobbs was a star that they pushed out after another election tech company sued Fox back in early 2021. And he kept focusing on the practical and the specifics. And the record is now replete with how many times these lies were put out there.

PARKS: OK. So strong words from the judge, but does that indicate at all which way he's leaning?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, the judge has warned a number of times, don't read anything into my questions. I'm here to learn, and I'm trying to figure out what sense to make of things and what are the rules of the road. He clearly expects there to be a trial. I will say, you know, he fought off Fox's efforts to inoculate their top corporate executives and particularly Fox founder Rupert Murdoch from having to testify in court in Wilmington, Del. He said, look, I have the authority and the ability to do that, and certainly Rupert Murdoch looks like he's in this as well.

PARKS: Well, separately, but relatedly, a senior producer for Fox star Tucker Carlson filed a lawsuit last week. And she said Fox's lawyers pressured her in the defamation case we've been talking about. Can you tell us a little bit about this new lawsuit?

FOLKENFLIK: Sure. Well, she actually filed two suits - one in New York in federal court and one in Delaware. And the one in New York was saying she was discriminated against, that she had an incredibly misogynistic work climate when she worked for Maria Bartiromo and also particularly for Tucker Carlson in the last year. But in the one filed in Delaware, she is arguing that Fox's lawyers were preparing her for her testimony in this case - that is, she had to speak under oath and answer questions from Dominion's lawyers - and that they basically pressured her and guided her to give answers that she now are saying weren't true, as a way of protecting Fox stars and Fox executives, particularly male ones who they wanted to protect and making her and, she argued, Maria Bartiromo scapegoat for all the defamation that we're seeing the allegations play out in court on.

PARKS: OK. So that is a lot of negativity swirling around Fox right now. But what do things look like for the company outside of the courtroom?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, in some ways it looks great. Their viewership is quite high. They're right now promoting the heck out of Ron DeSantis. But former President Trump, who had, you know, essentially criticized the network and condemned them repeatedly is now coming back on the air. Tomorrow night, he's scheduled to sit down with Sean Hannity.

They're having advertisers seemingly embrace them at what are called the upfronts, where they project about how things are going to look in the coming TV season. So you could argue a credible case that Fox, absent from, you know, the question of integrity and credibility and journalism, is looking quite good.

PARKS: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks so much for talking through this, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.