How the Media Trial of the Century Ended Before It Even Began

How the Media Trial of the Century Ended Before It Even Began

WILMINGTON, Del. — Bruce Hudson was there for the show.

A 78-year-old personal injury attorney based in a city perhaps best known as being the place Joe Biden commuted from once, Hudson was first in line on Tuesday for the post-lunch proceedings inside room 7E of the Leonard L. Williams Justice Center. There, Judge Eric M. Davis was presiding over what promised to be the Media Trial of the Century.

Or at least a hell of a six-week-long spectacle. And Hudson knew the most important player in the game.

“This is the dream case for any trial judge,” Hudson said, almost — but not quite — as if gushing at an opportunity that had fallen on the lap of a close friend.

After all, this was no run-of-the-mill civil matter. This was Fox News, the behemoth that has emerged as perhaps the most influential network in the American media landscape, facing a $1.6 billion lawsuit for spreading lies about the 2020 election, and in particular a voting-machine company called Dominion. During a key stretch of November and December 2020, when President Joe Biden’s election win was clear but former President Donald Trump’s acolytes couldn’t accept it, Fox broadcasted stories suggesting Dominion was essentially a tool of Hugo Chavez — and that its voting equipment was used to flip untold numbers of votes from Trump to Biden.

None of that was true, and now Fox brass were going to pay — and Hudson wanted in on it.

He had litigated his share of cases in front of Davis, he said, so he knew the judge was up to the job. Davis is a guy “you learn not to test,” Hudson said, repeating the phrase “no-nonsense” more than once.

The dozens of reporters in the scrum itching to get a good spot to hear opening arguments in a case set to feature testimony from Rupert Murdoch and Maria Bartiromo and Tucker Carlson got a taste of that for themselves.

Journalists were — politely! — warned by Davis not to type too loudly on their computers for fear of prejudicing jurors. Prohibitions against sending tweets or any kind of communication from inside the courtroom were emphasized — by Davis and his staff — almost to the point of absurdity, even as the judge quipped with jurors that he would let them have drinks inside the courtroom, just no alcohol. Someone was ejected for taking a picture.

Davis kept his cool during his brief time on the high altar of American media. When a juror threw up his hands and exclaimed “Your honor, I can’t do this,” late in the jury selection process Tuesday morning, he excused the man and replaced him quickly. He may have had literally dozens of attorneys in front of him, may have faced the prospect of every procedural move he made being scrutinized on cable channels and in appellate courts, but he was ready.

Hudson, too, was ready — and pleased to have snagged his spot at the front of the pack (where he met a New York Times columnist) for what were supposed to be opening arguments Tuesday afternoon.

Delaware is the hub of commercial litigation for the legions of companies (including both Dominion and Fox) that are incorporated in the state. But this case was different. “That’s the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen in a Delaware courtroom,” Hudson told me.

Until it wasn’t.

The first sign that a settlement might be brewing was the sheer passage of time. Instead of opening arguments beginning as expected at 1:30 p.m., hordes of attorneys and journalists found themselves packed into a courtroom with no action. One hour. Then two.

There were plenty of plausible reasons the proceedings might be held up, only to proceed in all their glory. Perhaps Judge Davis was still fuming about a dispute with Fox over whether it had properly disclosed materials in the discovery process. Or perhaps the two parties were still beefing over who would say what in their opening statements, and what might be objectionable therein. Or maybe another juror had gone rogue.

The reporter sitting next to me started to grapple with the sick reality of coming so close to witnessing the media news equivalent of a unicorn — Tucker Carlson on a witness stand — before I did. “I’m getting settlement vibes,” he muttered mid-afternoon.

I frantically scanned Twitter — a surefire violation of courtroom rules — and saw a tweet from a CNN reporter indicating Fox and Dominion attorneys had been spotted exchanging notes, a theoretical sign of a deal.

But it couldn’t be, could it? The First Amendment stakes were too great, the implications for the future of libel law too abstract, for this just to be a matter of money. Legal scholars I’d been talking to seemed to think Dominion was in this for ethical reasons, not just financial ones — they wanted to humiliate Fox and send a message after some of their own employees had been made to fear for their lives.

Then Judge Davis made his move.

Finally reentering the courtroom at 3:54 p.m., he seemed to take a moment to revel in the scene. It was almost over before it began.

‘“All well?” he asked Justin Nelson, an attorney for Dominion.

“Yes, your honor.”

Moments later, hopes were dashed — dreams torpedoed. “The parties have resolved their case,” Davis told jurors, before opining about the quality of the lawyering on both sides.

Shocked reporters gasped and raced for the exits. There were stories to file. And for Dominion attorneys, there was a press conference to hold, one in which they would be asked — and not answer — whether, in addition to the $787,500,000 payout they had won, Fox had agreed to apologize to them.

It soon became apparent that there was no apology coming — that Murdoch was not going to record a PSA about election theft mythology and the responsibility of news organizations. Liberal fantasies were toast.

Instead, Dominion took the money and ran. And Bruce Hudson had to make do with a brief spectacle, one he had seemed to anticipate might be too good to be true earlier Tuesday afternoon.

As he put it, “Six weeks is a long time for people to be available.”


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