In its settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, Fox News avoided a painful, drawn-out trial in which its founder Rupert Murdoch, its top executives and biggest stars will Had to face an embarrassing question: Why did they allow a vicious and defamatory conspiracy theory about the 2020 election to spread online that many of them knew to be false?
But the $787.5 million settlement — one of the largest defamation settlements in history — and Fox’s court statement acknowledging that the court found “certain statements about Dominion” aired on its show to be “false” — At least as rare as it is, a high-profile acknowledgment of informational misconduct by the titans of conservative media and America’s most popular cable network.
“Money is liability,” Dominion’s attorney, Stephen Shackelford, said outside court. “We got that from Fox today.”
The terms of the agreement, which were announced abruptly before lawyers were expected to deliver opening statements, do not require Fox to apologize for any wrongdoing on its own show — something Dominion is said to have been pressing.
Shortly after the deal was struck, Fox said, “Hopefully we decide to resolve the dispute with Dominion amicably, rather than a bitterly divisive trial, and let the country move on from these issues.”
The settlement made an implicit plea of ”no objection” to several pretrial findings by Judge Eric M. Davis, the presiding judge in the case, that made Fox’s show extra harsh criticism.
In one of its findings, the judge sided with Dominion, asserting that Fox could not claim that the conspiracy theories it aired — often related to false claims that its machines “converted” Trump votes to Biden votes — were subject to the law. Protecting the “news-gathering” status of a news organization when the facts protected are contested. “The evidence does not support FNN’s reporting in good faith and impartiality,” the judge wrote.
In another finding, the judge wrote, “The evidence developed in this civil action shows very clearly that none of the statements made by Dominion regarding the 2020 election are true.”
Through these findings, the judge severely limited Fox’s ability to argue that it, as a news network, went after newsmakers’ claims that, in this case, the President of the United States was the main horn of the false Dominion narrative.
In the heady days leading up to the trial, Fox has been saying that if it loses the trial, it will appeal, at least in part, at odds with those judicial decisions. Now they are undisputed.
By Tuesday’s close, it was clear that Fox’s lawyers were making emergency calculations to absorb the financial damage, rather than risk losing the case at trial.
As many legal experts said before the trial, Dominion managed to gather an unusually large number of internal documents from Fox, showing that many people inside the company knew that the Dominion election conspiracy theory was pure fantasy. This extends to the highest levels of the network – all the way to Mr Murdoch himself.
The evidence appears to bring Dominion closer to the legal threshold in a defamation case known as “actual malice” — when a defamatory statement is “made with knowledge that it is false or with reckless disregard of its truth.” (However, this standard is not always easy to meet, and there are no guarantees in front of a jury.)
“Dominion Voting brings out so much critical evidence that Fox acted with actual malice or reckless disregard for the facts that it could have shown the jury, so the only question left is damages,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor. University of Richmond. “The trial of the case could also damage Fox’s reputation when the evidence is presented in open court.”
Fox’s settlement at such a late stage on Tuesday was no surprise. The trial will see Fox News staff and Mr Murdoch argue with lawyers about the false knowledge they held and why they did nothing to stop it. The answers will shed further light on the inner modus operandi of an organization that has long protected its inner workings.
One question that only time will answer is whether the settlement will be enough for Fox News to change how it handles such inflammatory and defamatory conspiracy content. The amount is huge — $787.5 million. Fox News certainly doesn’t expect to see similar settlements anytime soon when other legal cases loom, notably a $2.7 billion lawsuit brought by another election technology company, Smartmatic.
But Fox did manage to avoid Dominion’s goal of an on-air acknowledgment or apology, meaning it didn’t have to force viewers who didn’t hear much about the case on Fox’s show in the first place.
Trial attorney Michelle Simpson Tuegel said: “Beyond the financial cost of the verdict, it’s hard to say how much damage the Fox verdict would do to the company because their audience is so loyal and accepting The polarizing views presented by their opinion moderators,” they said in a statement. “But the reputational damage to having executives, including chairman Rupert Murdoch, and the organizers appear in court appears to have prompted a resolution.”