Fox to pay $787.5 million to settle Dominion libel lawsuit
Fox News abruptly agreed on Tuesday to pay $787.5 million to resolve a defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems over the network’s promotion of 2020 election disinformation, avoiding a lengthy and embarrassing lawsuit just as a crowded courtroom was seated in anticipation of the hearing of opening statements.
The settlement, one of the largest ever in a defamation case, was the latest extraordinary twist in a case full of remarkable revelations that exposed the inner workings of the most powerful voice in conservative news.
In addition to the huge financial price, Dominion demanded a tough admission from Fox News, which admitted in a statement that “certain claims” it made about Dominion were false.
“Truth matters. Lies have consequences,” Dominion attorney Justin Nelson said in Delaware Superior Court on Tuesday.
News of the 11 a.m. deal stunned the entire Wilmington courtroom, where the case was being heard. Gasps filled the air when Judge Eric M. Davis told the jury shortly before 4 p.m. that both sides had resolved the case. Lawyers for both sides had prepared to speak to the jury for the first time, microphones clipped to their lapels.
The settlement spares Fox a lawsuit that would have lasted weeks and put many of the company’s most high-profile figures on the stand – from media mogul Rupert Murdoch to hosts like Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo.
The case had the potential to unleash a damaging stream of information about how the network told its audience a story of fraud and interference in the 2020 presidential election that many of its own executives and personalities to the screen did not believe. And the network was not forced to apologize – a concession Dominion lawyers had asked for, lawyers involved in the case said.
Dominion sued two years ago, after Fox aired false stories claiming Dominion’s voting machines were susceptible to hacking and reversed votes from President Donald J. Trump to Joseph R. Biden Jr. Tuesday. , the company expressed a sense of exoneration about the great financial cost that Fox will have to pay. While Dominion’s lawsuit sought damages of $1.6 billion, nearly double the amount of the settlement, the company will avoid many years of appeals that could have reduced or eliminated any payment from a lawsuit.
“More than two years ago, a torrent of lies swept through the Dominion and election officials across America in an alternate universe of conspiracy theories causing grave damage to the Dominion and the country,” Mr. Nelson said. . “Today’s settlement of $787.5 million represents vindication and accountability.”
The case and the pending trial were important because they raised the prospect of an elusive judgment in the post-Trump era: very few of the former president’s allies have been held legally accountable for their role in spreading the lies that have undermined confidence in the country’s democracy. process and called Mr. Biden’s victory illegitimate. Polls show large numbers of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was tainted.
The size of the colony, according to experts, seems to have little precedent. RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor at the University of Utah’s SJ Quinney College of Law, said she believed it was one of the biggest settlements ever in a defamation case.
“This was without a doubt the most serious defamation case we have ever seen against a major media company,” Ms Andersen Jones said. The case was even more unusual, she added, because media companies usually seek settlement long before so much damaging information about their inner workings comes out.
A deal was reached at the last possible minute, after months of almost no serious discussion between the two sides. As the case progressed, Dominion released extraordinary details about the doubts Fox employees privately expressed about the voter fraud allegations, even as they struck a different tone on air. .
“A settlement before this trove of evidence became public would of course have been in Fox’s best interests,” Ms Andersen Jones said. “Waiting until the day before the trial, when the whole nation had a chance to focus on what Fox said internally about Trump, his sources and his own viewers, gave Dominion the added layer of responsibility that he was looking for.”
Defamation suits rarely go to trial, in part because it is impossible to prove “actual malice” – the legal standard that requires plaintiffs to show that defendants knew what they were saying was a lie or that they had a reckless disregard for the truth – is so high. Even rarer is the sheer volume of evidence that Dominion had amassed against Fox.
Ahead of the trial, Dominion released reams of internal communications between Fox executives, hosts and producers that revealed how the nation’s most-watched cable news network implemented a strategy to win back viewers who had tuned out after Mr. Trump’s speech. loss. The posts tell the story of a frantic stampede inside Fox as it began to lose viewership to competitors, like Newsmax, who were more willing to report and endorse false claims about a plot involving Dominion machines to steal the election from Mr. Trump.
Producers called pro-Trump guests like Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani “gold” for the ratings and acknowledged that audiences didn’t want to hear about topics like the possibility of a peaceful transition from a Trump administration to a Biden administration.
These communications showed how Fox employees expressed serious doubts and, at times, disdained Mr. Trump and his allies as they spread lies about voter fraud, questioning the legitimacy of Mr. Trump’s election. Biden. Some at Fox have mocked Mr. Trump and his lawyers as “crazy” and under the influence of drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms.
Some Fox hosts privately described their colleagues as “reckless” for endorsing Mr Trump’s bogus claims, acknowledging there was “no evidence” to back them up. Yet for weeks, Fox continued to give a platform to election deniers, despite doubts about their credibility. Dominion disputed statements made on multiple programs over multiple nights. Typically, defamation cases involve only one disputed statement.
The trial would have been a spectacle. Mr Murdoch, whose family controls the Fox media empire, was due to be one of Dominion’s first witnesses this week. Star anchors including Sean Hannity, Mr. Carlson and Ms. Bartiromo were likely to be called up at other times.
Even the most high-profile media trials of the last generation — Ariel Sharon’s trial against Time and General William C. Westmoreland’s trial against CBS, both in the 1980s — lacked the most explosive elements of this case, which raised serious questions about First Amendment protections. offers to the media and whether one of the most influential forces in conservative politics should pay the price for amplifying misinformation.
These two cases were also settled out of court.
In recent days, Fox has raised questions about Dominion’s claims for damages. On Monday, he challenged Dominion’s value, pointing to a recent legal filing in which the company reduced part of its compensation claim. Fox’s attorneys also cast doubt on the damage Dominion suffered, saying the company admitted to making a profit in recent years.
But the potential pitfalls of going to trial were real for Fox. Some of the revelations from the depositions Dominion had conducted offered insight into how damaging a trial could be. Mr Murdoch acknowledged during his deposition that some Fox hosts had ‘approved’ of Mr Trump’s lies, an admission that undermined Fox’s defense that he was merely reporting – not amplifying – the former’s claims. president.
After the deposition was over, Fox Corporation general counsel Viet Dinh tried to reassure Mr. Murdoch that he had done the right thing.
“I’ll just say it. They didn’t put their finger on you,” Mr. Dinh said.
Mr Murdoch disagreed, according to a person who witnessed the exchange. He pointed to the lawyer who had interviewed him for Dominion, Mr. Nelson, and said, “I think he would strongly disagree with that.”
To which Mr Nelson replied: “Indeed I do.”
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