Fox and Dominion reach $787.5 million settlement over false election allegations

Wilmington, Del. • Fox and Dominion Voting Systems on Tuesday reached a $787 million settlement in the voting machine maker’s defamation lawsuit, averting a trial in a case that exposed how the top-rated network stalked viewers by telling lies about the Presidential elections 2020 spread.

“The truth counts. Lying has consequences,” Dominion attorney Justin Nelson said in a news conference outside the courthouse after a judge announced the deal.

Dominion had demanded $1.6 billion, arguing that Fox had damaged its reputation by helping to spread false conspiracy theories about its gear that shifted votes from former President Donald Trump to Democrat Joe Biden. Fox said the amount grossly overstated the value of the Colorado-based company.

The Delaware Supreme Court decision follows a recent ruling by Judge Eric Davis, in which he allowed the case to go to court, stressing it is “CRYSTALALLY clear” that none of the allegations aired by Trump allies on Fox about Dominion are true.

In a statement released shortly after the announcement, Fox News said the network “acknowledged the court’s rulings finding certain allegations about Dominion to be false.” A request for clarification went unanswered.

Inquiries to Dominion and Fox Corp. were not answered immediately.

Recordings released as part of the lawsuit showed how Fox hosts and executives disbelieved the claims made by Trump’s allies but aired them anyway, in part to win back viewers who fled the network after it correctly hotly contested Arizona for had named Democrat Joe Biden for the election that night.

The settlement, which does not require judge’s approval, will end a case that has proven to be a major embarrassment for Fox News. If the case had gone to trial, it would also have been one of the toughest tests of a defamation standard protecting media organizations in more than half a century.

Several First Amendment experts have said Dominion’s fall is one of the strongest they’ve seen. Still, there was genuine doubt as to whether Dominion would be able to prove to a jury that decision-makers at Fox could be held responsible for the network’s spreading of falsehoods.

Dominion accused Fox of defaming it by repeatedly peddling false accusations from Trump allies in the weeks after the election that the company’s machines had passed votes to Biden — though many on the network doubted the claims and disparaged those who made them raised.

The company sued both Fox News and its parent company, Fox Corp. and said his business was significantly damaged.

During a testimony, Fox Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch, who founded the network, testified that he believes the 2020 election was fair and was not stolen by Trump.

“Fox knew the truth,” Dominion argued in court filings. “It knew the allegations against Dominion were ‘freaky’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘ridiculous’ and ‘crazy.’ Yet it used the power and influence of its platform to spread this false story.”

In a March 31 ruling, Davis specifically urged the news organization to spread untruths while noting that the bogus election claims still stand 2 1/2 years after Trump lost his bid for re-election.

“The statements in question were dramatically different from the truth,” Davis said in that ruling. “Indeed, it is noteworthy that some Americans still believe the election was rigged, although this cannot be directly attributed to Fox’s statements.”

In its defense, Fox said it had an obligation to cover the most newsworthy stories — a president who claims he was cheated out of re-election.

“We have never reported these as true,” Fox attorney Erin Murphy said. “All we ever did was convey to viewers the true fact that these were allegations that were being made.”

Fox said Dominion has argued that the network has an obligation to suppress the allegations or denounce them as false.

“Freedom of speech and freedom of the press would be illusory if the winning side in a public controversy could sue the press for giving the losing side a forum,” Fox said in court filings.

In a 1964 case involving the New York Times, the US Supreme Court limited the ability of public figures to sue for defamation. The court ruled that plaintiffs had to prove that news outlets published or broadcast false material with “actual malice” — knowing that such material was false or in “reckless disregard” for whether it was true or not.

This has given news organizations strong protections against libel judgments. But the legal standard, spanning nearly six decades, has come under attack in recent years from some conservatives, including Trump and Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who have advocated making it easier to win a libel case.

Two Republican nominees for the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, have publicly expressed interest in a reconsideration of protections.

Dominion’s attorneys argued that Fox made a conscious decision to repeatedly broadcast the false claims in order to appeal to viewers. They allowed guests to falsely claim the company rigged the election, leaked large numbers of votes to Biden through a secret algorithm, belonged to a company set up in Venezuela to rig elections for Hugo Chavez, the late president , and bribed government officials.

“What they did to get viewers back was start this new narrative that the election had been stolen and that Dominion was the thief,” Dominion attorney Rodney Smolla said during a March hearing.

A mountain of evidence — released in the form of deposition protocols, internal memos and emails from the time — hurt Fox, though some of it was only marginally related to the libel argument.

Dominion has pointed to text and email messages in which Fox insiders have disparaged, and at times openly mocked, allegations of vote-rigging. A vice president of Fox Corp. called them “MIND BLOWINGLY NUTS”.

Much of the footage showed a network effectively scared of its audience after its declaration on election night that Biden Arizona had won. The race call enraged Trump and many viewers who supported him.

Noting the audience’s anger, one of Fox’s top news anchors, Bret Baier, suggested pulling the call and even giving status to Trump.

“We don’t want to further upset Trump,” Murdoch said in a Nov. 16 memo.

Biden narrowly won Arizona, but two executives responsible for the exact election night lost their jobs two months later. In an internal memo in mid-November, Murdoch spoke of firing her.

Fox executives and presenters discussed how not to alienate audiences, many of whom believed Trump’s cheating allegations despite lack of evidence to back it up. Fox’s Tucker Carlson suggested firing a news reporter for tweeting a fact check debunking the cheating allegations.

Some of the exhibits were downright embarrassing, such as behind-the-scenes sneers at Trump, whose supporters form the core of the network’s viewers. Text exchanges revealed as part of the lawsuit show that Carlson declared, “I hate him passionately” and said that “we’re very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights.”

Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York and Nicholas Riccardi in Denver contributed to this report.

Justin Scaccy

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