Lies have consequences… as Fox News settles defamation case for $787.5m
Dominion Voting Systems has reached a settlement in its $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against American media giant, Fox News. “The truth matters. Lies have consequences,” said Dominion lawyer, Justin Nelson, noting that the $787.5 million settlement with Fox represents accountability.
However, Fox News hosts are not expected to retract or acknowledge the falsehoods they spread about Dominion on air.
Although Fox acknowledged, in a statement that, “the Court’s rulings find certain claims about Dominion to be false”, Fox News hosts won’t have to admit to lying to its viewers, or directly take accountability for spreading false information.
The American media giant had been accused of defamation by the election technology company, Dominion, over its coverage of the 2020 United States presidential election.
Dominion filed its lawsuit in 2021, alleging that Fox News knowingly aired falsehoods about its voting machines in an attempt to boost lagging viewership. Trump and his allies had claimed Dominion’s voting machines were used to rig the 2020 election, resulting in his loss to President Joe Biden.
The voting machine company initially sought $1.6bn from Fox for “intentionally and falsely blaming Dominion for President Trump’s loss.”
Fox reached a $787m settlement and maintained that it was only reporting on Trump’s allegations, not supporting them, and that its coverage was protected under constitutional free speech rights.
Judge Eric Davis of the Delaware Superior Court on Tuesday informed the selected 12-member jury that the parties have resolved their case.
Dominion disclosed the settlement figure on Tuesday, and its lawyer, Justin Nelson, said the settlement “represents vindication and accountability” and that “lies have consequences”.
Dominion lawyers declined to answer questions about whether Fox News would apologise publicly or make reforms.
The agreement to end the case avoided what most experts suggested would have been a damaging, high-profile trial for the conservative channel in which owner Rupert Murdoch would have been compelled to testify in open court.
Judge Eric Davis announced the last-minute agreement after the 12 jurors had been selected and the Delaware Superior Court was readying to hear opening arguments.
Dominion CEO John Poulos told reporters outside the court that Fox had “admitted to telling lies about Dominion that caused enormous damage to my company, our employees, and our customers. Nothing can ever make up for that.”
The proceedings, trailed by the New York Times as “the defamation trial of the century,” had been due to test the limits of free speech rights for media in America when wilfully broadcasting misinformation.
Analysts had predicted it could be one of the most consequential libel hearings in US legal history.
The settlement, believed one of the largest in a defamation case ever, means star anchors, such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity will also avoid appearing on the witness stand.
US media reported that the agreement does not require Fox hosts to apologize on-air or admit spreading falsehoods.
Dominion sued Fox News for $1.6 billion in March 2021, alleging it promoted Donald Trump’s baseless claim that its machines were used to rig the presidential election he lost to Joe Biden.
Dominion argued that Fox aired the lies despite knowing they were untrue.
It said the network began endorsing Trump’s conspiracy because the channel was losing audience to smaller rivals after it became the first television outlet to call the southwestern state of Arizona for Biden, effectively projecting the Democrat would win the presidency.
Fox News denied defamation. It claimed it was only reporting on Trump’s allegations, not supporting them, and was protected by free speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
The protection makes it difficult for plaintiffs to win defamation suits in the United States.
In pre-trial hearings, Davis ruled that there was no question Fox aired false statements about Dominion.
For Dominion to have won however, it would have been required to prove that Fox News acted with actual malice — knowing the information was wrong or having a “reckless disregard” for the truth.
The tough burden has been a bedrock of US media law since 1964.
Dominion released a trove of internal Fox News communications in which some commentators and executives balked at Trump’s claims and even expressed a dislike of the ex-president despite praising him on air — evidence, it said, of malice.
A filing showed that Murdoch described comments by former Trump advisors Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell pushing Trump’s claim that the election was stolen from him as “really crazy stuff. And damaging.”
Murdoch also admitted in a deposition in the case that some on-air hosts had “endorsed” the lie but he denied that the network in its entirety had pushed it, according to court documents filed by Dominion.
Carlson told staff he couldn’t wait until he could “ignore Trump most nights,” adding: “I hate him passionately.”
Fox News accused Dominion of “cherry-picking and taking quotes out of context.”
John Culhane, a professor at Delaware Law School at Widener University, said high-profile Fox names defending themselves in court would have been much worse for the network than the settlement.
“The audio would have been replayed a thousand times, forever,” he told AFP.