Over the last few years, as our judiciary system has pushed back against Trump’s disregard for the rule of law, we have been drinking from a legal educational firehose. Media content has always played a role in educating us about the law, miscarriages of justice, and the justice system in general, and it has never been more important in a digital world of misinformation.
My favorite legal term learned during the Trump era is Willful Blindness. Best explained in a New York Times opinion piece by Burt Neuborne, a professor emeritus at New York University Law School. He believes that Special Prosecutor Jack Smith intends to show that Trump lied about election fraud to gain unlawful criminal benefits (a 2nd term in office after losing the election). Neuborne wrote, “When a defendant, like Mr. Trump, is on notice of the potential likelihood of an inconvenient fact (Mr. Biden’s legitimate victory) and closes his eyes to overwhelming evidence of that fact, the willfully blind defendant is just as guilty as if he actually knew the fact.”
For many, great books and popular movies were the first exposure to big legal concepts. Famous films like To Kill a Mockingbird centered on injustice in our legal system based on race; 12 Angry Men focused on the legal concept of reasonable doubt; and Inherit the Wind pitted Darwin’s theory of evolution against creationism in court. More contemporary movies like Philadelphia dealt with homophobia when a young attorney sued his law firm for firing him because he had AIDS. Sometimes, legal concepts get their own movie, like Absence of Malice, the legal standard that protects news organizations from libel and defamation claims.
TV attorney dramas (The Practice, The Good Wife) and urban crime dramas with stories ripped from the headlines also added to our legal education. The leader of this popular genre is Law & Order, which takes you from the crime to the courtroom conclusion. Watching these shows, I learned about being Mirandized (“you have the right to remain silent…”), entering into a plea deal (i.e., Sidney Powel, Mark Meadows), and going after the big fish (i.e., Trump, Giuliani), plus fun acronyms like Perp (Perpetrator), Vic (victim), and BOLO (be on the lookout). All helpful in understanding today’s multitude of real-life legal dramas. The growth of 24-hour cable news, social media, and new digital content like crime podcasts (i.e., Serial) supercharged our legal education.
The tidal wave of Trump lawsuits has turned the legal spotlight away from urban crime and onto the boring world of white-collar crime. Terms like RICO (Racketeering & Corrupt Organizations Act), Defamation (the action of damaging the good reputation of someone), Business Fraud (the wrongful and criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain), and Gag Order (a legal order restricting a person from making certain information public or statements) have become part of regular dinner banter.
Before the terrorist attack on Israel, MSNBC was a wall-to-wall legal analysis of Trump’s various lawsuits filed against him and those who came under his influence, which include former staffers, business colleagues, political operatives, and over 200 convicted January 6 rioters. Fox News paid a $787 million settlement to end a defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion, the voting machine company, relating to defamatory and false claims Fox made about the 2020 election being stolen.
There are 91 felony counts filed against Trump in four criminal cases in Washington, New York, and Georgia. Charges included violating Georgia’s RICO anti-racketeering statute (four co-conspirators have flipped), hoarding classified documents and refusing to return them, and state charges relating to hush money payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign. A federal judge has already ruled that Trump is liable for defamatory statements he made about writer E. Jean Carroll in 2019 when she went public with claims he raped her decades earlier. She was awarded $5 million. Trump is also in a contentious $250 million business fraud case in NY. He is charged with inflating his business assets. In a partial summary judgment, the judge determined that Trump had submitted “fraudulent valuations” for his assets, leaving the judge to determine additional actions and the financial penalty. The verdict will be appealed.
Adding to our crash course legal education are Senator Bob “Goldfinger” Menendez (D-NJ) and his wife, Nadin. It is alleged that Menendez used his influence to pocket bribes from a foreign government, which included gold bars, cash, and a luxury car. And there is Hunter Biden, who did not pay his taxes for several years and made false statements about purchasing a firearm and illegally obtaining a firearm while addicted to drugs. A Special Counsel is looking into these matters after a Federal judge rejected a prior plea agreement.
My favorite new litigation is a shareholder lawsuit involving Fox News. Five NYC pension funds, joined by Oregon pension funds, filed a shareholder derivative lawsuit against the board of directors and key officers of Fox Corporation, the parent company of Fox News, for breach of fiduciary duty. NYC pension funds invest for 800,000 current and retired teachers, cops, and firemen, manage over $253 billion in assets, and own about $30 million shares in the Fox Corporation (as of August 31, 2023). The complaint alleges that the Fox Board knew that Fox News promoted political narratives without regard for whether the underlying factual assertions were true, creating defamation risk, including crazy false claims that election technology companies Dominion and Smartmatics, among others, rigged the 2020 presidential election.
These pension funds read all the embarrassing Dominion depositions, emails, texts, etc., which showed Fox News knew that they were peddling false narratives, and the board did nothing to stop it. The pension funds concluded the board had not fulfilled their fiduciary duty of care to mitigate risk and protect shareholder value, resulting in the $787 million Dominion payout, other pending defamation cases, and a depressed stock price. And if Fox is handing out big settlement money, they want some. This will get settled. Fox does not want more of its dirty laundry exposed, and now retired Fox Chairman Ruppert Murdoch, at 92, wants this to go away.
The final phase of our legal education will be when a bunch of the Perps are found guilty. Then, we will learn about endless appeals, pardons, sentencing guidelines, and whether a former President’s Secret Service detail must accompany him to prison if convicted. Or if a sitting convicted President can pardon himself.
Hugh Panero, a tech & media entrepreneur, was the founder & former CEO of XM Satellite Radio. He has worked with leading tech venture capital firms and was an adjunct media professor at George Washington University. He writes about Tech and Media for the Spy.