By Helen Coster and Jack Queen
WILMINGTON, Delaware (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Fox Corp and Fox News on Tuesday settled a $787.5 million defamation lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems, averting a lawsuit that has targeted one of the world’s top media companies for his coverage of false claims of vote-rigging in the 2020 US election.
The settlement, which according to legal experts was the largest reached by a US media company, was announced by the two parties and the judge in the case at the eleventh hour.
The jury had been selected earlier in the day and the trial was ready for opening statements in Wilmington, Delaware. Dominion had sought $1.6 billion in damages in the lawsuit filed in 2021.
Dominion CEO John Poulos called the settlement “historic.”
“Fox has admitted to telling lies about Dominion that have caused enormous damage to my company, our employees and our customers,” Poulos said in a statement.
“Truthful reporting in the media is essential to our democracy,” Poulos said.
At issue in the lawsuit was whether Fox was responsible for spreading false claims that Denver-based Dominion’s ballot counting machines were used to rig the presidential election in favor of Democrat Joe Biden over then-President Donald Trump, a Republican.
Tuesday’s deal spared Fox the danger of having some of its best-known figures called to the witness stand and subjected to potentially withering questioning, including executives like Rupert Murdoch, the 92-year-old who is president of Fox Corp, as well as on-air hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro.
Fox anchor Neil Cavuto broke into his “Your World” newscast at about 4:30 p.m. Eastern time to report the deal. A statement from Fox was read out on the air.
“We are pleased to have reached a resolution of our dispute with Dominion Voting Systems,” the statement said. “We acknowledge court rulings deeming certain statements about Dominion false. This settlement reflects FOX’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards. We hope that our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion amicably, rather than acrimoniously, will a controversial process, allows the country to overcome these problems”.
FOX HAS BILLIONS IN CASH
Shares of Fox Corp closed slightly higher at $34 a share but fell 1% in after-hours trading after the settlement amount was disclosed. Fox has cash on hand to pay off a deal. It pledged $3 billion to share buybacks in the first quarter after revenues beat estimates. Fox Corp CEO Lachlan Murdoch told Wall Street analysts in February that the company had about $4 billion in cash.
Dominion’s lawyers declined to answer questions about whether Fox News would publicly apologize or make changes.
Fox News is the most watched cable news network in the United States.
The $787.5 million settlement is the largest amount of money paid to settle a US media defamation case, said Richard Tofel, principal at Gallatin Advisory. The previously highest payout occurred in 2017, when Walt Disney Co paid $177 million, plus insurance recoveries, to settle Beef Products Inc’s “pink slime” defamation case against its ABC network.
Dominion is suing Fox Corp and Fox News, claiming its business was marred by false claims of vote rigging aired by the news outlet known for its roster of conservative commentators. The trial was to test whether Fox’s coverage crossed the line between ethical journalism and ratings-seeking, as Dominion claimed and Fox denied. Fox had portrayed himself in the preliminary skirmish as a defender of press freedom.
Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis, who presided over the case, ordered a one-day postponement of the trial on Monday. Fox was pursuing settlement talks, two sources familiar with the matter said. Davis delayed the trial on Tuesday, as the two sides appeared to work through the deal privately.
The primary question for the jurors was whether Fox was knowingly spreading false information or recklessly ignoring the truth—the standard of “effective malice” Dominion must display in order to prevail in a defamation case.
In court filings in February, Dominion cited a series of internal communications in which Murdoch and other Fox figures privately acknowledged that claims of vote-rigging made about Dominion on air were false. Dominion said Fox amplified the false claims to boost its ratings and keep its viewers from migrating to other media competitors on the right.
ANOTHER ACTION IN PROGRESS
Adding to the legal risks for Fox, another US voting technology company, Smartmatic, is pursuing its own defamation lawsuit seeking $2.7 billion in damages in a New York state court.
“For many plaintiffs, a court detention and a defendant’s admission of falsehood are even more important than any actual monetary damages,” said Mary-Rose Papandrea, a constitutional law professor at the US School of Law. University of North Carolina.
Fox had previously argued that claims by Trump and his lawyers about the election were inherently newsworthy and protected by the First Amendment to the US constitution. Davis ruled in March that Fox could not use those arguments as a defense, believing the coverage of him was false, defamatory and not protected by the First Amendment.
The lawsuit referred to cases in which Trump allies, including his former lawyers Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell, have appeared on Fox News to make false allegations.
Murdoch internally described the claims of vote-rigging as “really insane” and “harmful,” but refused to exercise editorial power to stop them and admitted under oath that some Fox anchors still “endorsed” the unsubstantiated claims, he said. Dominion told the court in a statement. .
When questioned by a Dominion attorney, Murdoch testified that he thought everything about the election was “to the upside” and doubted the claims of fraud from the start, according to Dominion’s filing.
Asked if he could have stepped in to stop Giuliani from continuing to spread falsehoods on the air, Murdoch replied, “I could have. But I didn’t,” the filing said.
(Reporting by Helen Coster in Wilmington and Jack Queen in New York; writing by Tom Hals; editing by Will Dunham, Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool)