APRIL 18, 2023
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images. –
The long-anticipated defamation trial in Dominion Voting Systems’ lawsuit against Fox News ended before it truly began Tuesday, with a judge announcing the two sides had agreed to a settlement. Dominion says Fox has agreed to pay $787.5 million — nearly half of the $1.6 billion Dominion sought.
At issue in the case were false claims that Fox aired about Dominion related to former president Donald Trump’s false accusations about the 2020 election being stolen. Dominion had to prove not only that the claims weren’t true — which it did — but that Fox’s actions met the legal standard of “actual malice,” meaning that it knew better or that it showed a reckless disregard for the truth.
The settlement, the full terms of which weren’t immediately clear and could remain shrouded, will spare Fox a lengthy spectacle delving into those issues. But it came after a series of ugly disclosures about the cable news leader.
Below are some takeaways.
1. The damage done
The name of the game for Fox and its owners in such situations — be it the British phone-hacking scandal, sexual misconduct, gender discrimination cases or others — is almost always to settle. Often, and evidently by design, that deprives us of a true hearing on the merits of the allegations.
But in this case Fox didn’t reach a settlement until after a series of thoroughly damaging revelations via the legal discovery process and early court maneuvers. The documentation in the case showed that many at Fox indeed knew better about the conspiracy theories the network aired, that it chose to air them anyway in the name of appealing to an audience that believed these claims and wanted to believe Trump had won, and that even Fox’s news product toed the company’s political line.
The judge also ruled that it was “CRYSTAL clear” that the claims Fox aired were false.
What will continue to linger over the network are the lessons of all that evidence. Given what we’ve learned about Fox’s focus on its business model, other outlets will view its news product — its journalism — accordingly. It reinforced the idea that the shows put on by Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham are just that: shows tailored to an audience, and they might not reflect what the hosts or the people behind the scenes actually know or believe.
Perhaps as much as anything, the case reflected the control Trump has over the conservative movement, given the fear Fox demonstrated of what Trump could do to it — a fear that echoes the broader Republican Party’s posture toward Trump.
Of course, whether Fox viewers will ever consume any of that is another matter. Fox covered the trial sparingly after initially barring even its media reporter from weighing in. The conservative media ecosystem is exceedingly insular. Just as Fox capitalized on its audience’s false beliefs about voter fraud — even as such claims had been routinely debunked elsewhere — it will probably benefit from their disinterest in learning what just happened at their favored cable news outlet.
What’s clear is that Dominion, while having understandable motives to settle, struck perhaps the most significant blow to date against Fox well before it agreed to the deal.
2. The scale of the settlement
There remain questions about the settlement beyond the dollar figure. But a big one was answered shortly after it was announced. The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr reports that Fox says it will not be required to issue an on-air apology. (Dominion’s lawyers did not address this.)
It is notable that Fox News said in its post-settlement press statement that “we acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.” But that acknowledgment is pretty thin gruel if it’s the only mention Fox gives about its conduct. It’s merely stating something that the court said without necessarily endorsing it. (Fox media reporter Howard Kurtz did say on-air after the settlement that the allegations were “obviously false. Those were conspiracy theories.”)
Dominion sought to cast Fox’s statement as more significant, with chief executive John Poulos saying that “Fox has admitted to telling lies about Dominion.”
But even if you recognize that Fox was admitting the statements were false, the network did not address whether those statements were lies. “Lies have consequences,” Dominion lawyer Justin Nelson said, adding: “Today represents a ringing endorsement for truth and for democracy.”
As for the dollar figure, it’s surely one of the largest in history for a defamation suit (the totals in such suits often remain confidential). It also compares to some estimates of the total cost of the phone-hacking scandal last decade that cost Rupert Murdoch’s media empire as much as $1 billion.
Fox, which owns the nation’s leading cable news outlet, had $4 billion in cash in its last financial filing, meaning it would seem to be able to cover such a large payout. But it’s a huge blow to the bottom line.
3. What’s next?
And it might not be the end of it. While the news of the settlement is hugely significant, there’s more to come — even on this specific issue.
Fox still has to contend with a similar lawsuit from another voting technology company, Smartmatic. The company was often lumped in with Dominion while the false claims were made on Fox, and in some cases the claims against Smartmatic arguably went further.
A New York judge last month allowed Smartmatic’s $2.7 billion lawsuit to move forward. The size of the payout in the Dominion case will only make the stakes of this next case even larger.
Another major issue looming over Fox is what its shareholders might do. Shareholders can sue the network over how its decisions damaged their assets. One of them filed suit this month. Others have demanded company records.
While the Dominion payout might not severely hamper Fox, the combination of all of these things could exact a growing and much larger toll. And as far as Fox is concerned, the issue as a whole isn’t completely settled. What just happened suggests it’s not exactly fighting from a position of strength.
Dominion says it’s not done, either, with lawyer Stephen Shackelford saying: “We’ve got some other people who have some accountability coming toward them. And we’ll move right on to the next one.”
Dominion is also suing MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who promoted the false election claims on Fox and elsewhere. (Lindell’s fate would also seem to matter greatly to Fox, given that documents in the Dominion case show Fox referring to him as the network’s top advertiser.)
4. Late missteps from Fox
Before the two sides were able to reach an agreement, Fox repeatedly earned the ire of the judge, including on Tuesday.
Judge Eric M. Davis removed Fox communications executive and spokeswoman Caley Cronin from the courtroom after she was caught taking pictures. Cameras and tweeting from the courtroom are forbidden during the trial, which is being held behind closed doors.
Davis said that when admonished, Cronin “turned on everybody else” and said others were “actively tweeting in the courtroom.” So Davis took the opportunity to remind everyone of the rules and assure those in the courtroom that they would be enforced.
Davis last week sharply rebuked Fox’s lawyers and ordered an investigation after Dominion said Fox obscured Murdoch’s status as an officer at Fox News and the Fox Corp. Dominion said Murdoch’s actual status would have entitled it to more evidence in the case. Davis said Fox had a “credibility problem” and that the issue might have influenced his own previous decisions.
Fox later apologized to the judge while attributing the omission to a “misunderstanding.” Davis earlier Tuesday had appointed a special master to look into whether Fox abided by its obligations to produce the documents and communications it was required to.
The situations reinforced that the proceedings were a growing headache for Fox — and one Fox had all kinds of reasons to try to get rid of.
Courtesy/Source: Washington Post