Fox News $787.5 Million Settlement and Embarrassing Disclosures: The Cost of Spreading a Lie
By settling with Dominion Voting Systems, Fox News avoided an excruciating and drawn-out lawsuit in which its founding chief Rupert Murdoch, its top executives and its biggest stars would have faced hostile grilling over an embarrassing question: Why did they allowed a virulent and defamatory conspiracy theory about the 2020 election to spread on the network when so many of them knew it was false?
But the $787.5 million settlement agreement — among the largest defamation settlements in history — and Fox’s courthouse statement acknowledging that the court found that “certain assertions about Dominion” aired on its programming were “fake” – at the very least amount to a rare, high profile acknowledgment of news wrongdoings by a powerhouse in conservative media and America’s most popular cable network.
“Money is responsibility,” Stephen Shackelford, a Dominion lawyer, said outside the courthouse, “and we got it today from Fox.”
The terms of the deal, which were abruptly announced just before the attorneys were supposed to make opening statements, did not require Fox to apologize for any wrongdoing in its own programming – a point Dominion reportedly insisted on. .
Shortly after closing the deal, Fox said he was “hopeful that our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion out of court, instead of the acrimony of a divisive lawsuit, allow the country to move forward on these issues”.
The settlement features an implied “no contest” plea to several pretrial findings by the presiding judge in the case, Eric M. Davis, that cast Fox programming in an unusually harsh light.
In one such finding, the judge sided with Dominion in its assertion that Fox could not claim that its dissemination of the conspiracy theory – usually linked to the false claim that its machines had “transformed Trump votes to Biden votes – fell under legal protection. “news collection” status that can protect news organizations when facts are disputed. The judge wrote, “The evidence does not confirm that FNN conducted good faith and disinterested reporting.”
In another finding, the judge wrote that “the evidence developed in this civil proceeding demonstrates that it is CRYSTAL clear that none of the statements relating to Dominion regarding the 2020 election are true.”
Through these findings, the judge seriously limited Fox’s ability to argue that it was acting as a news network pursuing the claims of a journalist, in this case, the President of the United States, who was the bugler. principal part of the false Dominion narrative.
In those heady days before the first day of trial, Fox had indicated that if she lost at trial, she would prepare an appeal that, at least in part, would challenge those court rulings. Now they are undisputed.
By the end of the day Tuesday, it was clear that Fox’s attorneys were engaged in an urgent calculation to take the financial hit rather than risk losing at trial.
As so many pre-trial legal experts had argued, Dominion had managed to collect an unusual amount of internal Fox documents showing that many inside the company knew Dominion’s election conspiracy theory was pure fantasy. This extended to the highest ranks of the network – all the way to Mr. Murdoch himself.
This evidence appeared to bring Dominion closer to the legal threshold in defamation cases known as “actual malice” – established when defamatory statements are “made knowing they are untrue or with a reckless disregard as to whether they were true or No”. (That bar, however, isn’t always easy to hit, and there are no guarantees in front of a jury.)
“Dominion Voting had obtained ample critical evidence that Fox had acted with actual malice or a reckless disregard for the truth, which he could have proven to a jury, so the only remaining issue would have been damages” , said Carl Tobias, professor of law at the University of Richmond. “The trial of the case could also have undermined Fox’s reputation when the evidence was presented in open court.”
It was less of a surprise for Fox to settle than if it did at such a late stage on Tuesday. A trial would have seen Fox News staff and Mr Murdoch parry with lawyers over knowledge of the falsity they held and why they took no action to stop him. The answers would have further unmasked the internal modus operandi of an organization that has long protected its internal operations.
The only question that only time will answer is whether the settlement was enough to cause Fox News to change the way it handles this inflammatory and defamatory conspiracy content. The amount is huge – $787.5 million. Fox News certainly doesn’t want to see a similar settlement anytime soon as more legal cases loom, including a $2.7 billion lawsuit from another election tech company, Smartmatic.
But Fox managed to evade Dominion’s goal of an on-air admission or apology, meaning he didn’t have to force his audience either, who didn’t hear much talk about the case on Fox shows to begin with.
“It’s hard to say how damaging a decision against Fox would have been to the company beyond the financial cost of the verdict, as their audience is very loyal and bought into the polarized perspective their opinion leaders present.” , Michelle Simpson Tuegel, litigation attorney, said in a statement. “But the reputational damage of having leaders, including Chairman Rupert Murdoch, and hosts at the helm appears to have pushed the parties toward a resolution.”
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