Fox News agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787.5 Million to settle a defamation lawsuit filed against the network for spreading misinformation regarding the 2020 elections. This agreement was made on Tuesday, just before a full courtroom sat down to hear opening statements.
The settlement was one of the biggest ever in defamation cases. It was the latest twist in an extraordinary case that had been filled with remarkable revelations that revealed the inner workings and most powerful voice of conservative news.
Fox News also had to admit that it was wrong about "certain claims" made by Dominion.
The truth is important. "Lies have consequences," Justin Nelson said, an attorney for Dominion outside Delaware Superior Court, on Tuesday.
The news of an agreement reached at the eleventh hour stunned the entire courtroom in Wilmington where the case was heard. The air was filled with gasps when the judge, Eric M. Davis, told the jury just before 4 pm that the parties had settled the case. Both sides were preparing to address the jury, with microphones attached to their jackets.
The settlement saves Fox from a lengthy trial, which would have lasted for several weeks and brought many of its most prominent personalities to the witness stand -- including Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul and hosts such as Maria Bartiromo and Tucker Carlson.
This case could potentially expose damaging information about the way the network lied to its audience, claiming that there was fraud and interference with the 2020 presidential elections. Many of the network's executives and personalities on screen did not buy into this story. Lawyers involved in the case claim that the network did not have to apologize, a concession sought by Dominion attorneys.
Dominion filed a lawsuit two years ago after Fox broadcasted false stories that claimed Dominion's machines were vulnerable to hacking, and that they had flipped votes away from Donald J. Trump in favor of Joseph R. Biden Jr. Dominion sued for $1.6 billion in damages, which is almost twice the amount of the settlement. However, by settling, they avoided years of court appeals, which could have reduced or eliminated any payment.
Nelson stated that "over two years ago a torrent lied swept Dominion officials and voters across America into a conspiracy universe, causing grave harm to Dominion as well as the country." The $787.5-million settlement announced today represents justice and accountability.
The case and the anticipated trial were important because they raised the possibility of an elusive judgement in the post Trump era. Very few allies have been held accountable for their role in spreading falsehoods which undermined confidence in our democratic process and cast the victory of Mr. Biden as illegitimate. According to polls, a large number of Republicans believe that the 2020 elections are tainted.
Experts said that the size of the settlement seems to be unique. RonNell Andersen Jones is a professor at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah. She said that she thought it was the largest settlement ever in a defamation lawsuit.
Andersen Jones stated that this was the most serious defamation suit she had ever seen brought against a media company. She said that the case was more unique because media companies usually settle before damaging information about internal operations is revealed.
After months of little or no serious discussion, a deal was reached at the last minute. Dominion revealed extraordinary details as the case progressed about the doubts Fox employees privately expressed about claims of voter fraud, even though they took a different tone in the air.
Andersen Jones stated that it would have been in Fox’s best interests to settle before the evidence was made public. Waiting until trial day, when the entire nation could focus on what Fox had said about Trump, their sources, and their own viewers, was the best way to give Dominion that extra layer of accountability they were seeking.
Defamation cases rarely reach trial. This is partly because plaintiffs must prove "actual malice," which is the standard by which they have to show defendants that what they said was a falsehood or that the defendants acted with reckless disregard of the truth. Rarer still is a case that features the amount of evidence Dominion had gathered against Fox.
Dominion released internal communications between Fox executives, producers and hosts in the lead-up to the trial. These revealed how Fox, the most watched cable news network in the United States, set into motion a plan to bring back viewers who tuned out following Mr. Trump's defeat. The messages reveal a frenetic scramble within Fox when it began losing viewers to rivals, such as Newsmax, who were more willing and able to report on, and endorse, false claims, about a Dominion plot to steal Mr. Trump's election.
The producers referred to pro Trump guests such as Sidney Powell or Rudolph W. Giuliani, as "gold," for ratings. They also acknowledged that audiences didn't care about topics like the possibility of peaceful transitions from a Trump to Biden administration.
These communications show how Fox employees expressed doubts and at times were mocking of Mr. Trump, his allies, and their lies about voter fraud and questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Biden’s election. Fox employees mocked Donald Trump and his attorneys as "crazy", and under the influence drugs such as L.S.D. Magic mushrooms.
Some Fox hosts have privately referred to their colleagues as being "reckless" because they endorsed Mr. Trump’s false claims despite the fact that "no proof" could be provided. Fox has continued to promote election deniers despite their doubts. Dominion has challenged statements that were made in multiple programs, on different nights. Defamation suits usually involve only one disputed statement.
The trial would have made for a spectacular show. This week, Mr. Murdoch was scheduled to be Dominion’s first witness. His family owns the Fox media empire. Other witnesses, including Sean Hannity and Mr. Carlson as well as Ms. Bartiromo are likely to be called.
Even the most famous media trials in recent history -- Ariel Sharon's lawsuit against Time, and Gen. William C. Westmoreland against CBS in the 1980s -- did not have the explosive elements in this case. It raised serious questions about First Amendment protections for the media, and whether the conservative political force that is most influential would be held accountable for spreading misinformation.
Both cases were also settled outside of court.
Fox has raised concerns in recent days about Dominion’s claims for damages. It disputed Dominion’s value on Monday by pointing out a recent court filing where the company reduced part of its compensation request. Fox lawyers questioned the damage that Dominion suffered by stating that the company had made a profit over the past few years.
Fox was aware of the dangers that could arise from a trial. Dominion's depositions revealed some of the damaging effects that a trial might have. Murdoch admitted in his deposition that Fox had "endorsed" some of Mr. Trump’s lies. This admission undermined Fox's claim that they were merely reporting the claims made by the former president, and not amplifying them.
Viet Dinh tried to assure Mr. Murdoch, after the deposition ended, that he did well.
"I will just say it." "They didn't touch you", Mr. Dinh replied.
A person who was present at the exchange said that Mr. Murdoch did not agree. He pointed at Mr. Nelson, the lawyer who questioned him on behalf of Dominion and said: "I think that he would strongly oppose that."
Nelson replied: "I do indeed."