Dominion Voting Systems, an election technology company, has reached a $787m settlement with Fox News over defamation claims related to the 2020 United States presidential election. The lawsuit alleged that Fox News knowingly aired falsehoods about Dominion’s voting machines in an attempt to boost lagging viewership, following former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that the election was marred by widespread fraud. Trump and his allies had claimed Dominion’s voting machines were used to rig the election, resulting in his loss to Joe Biden. Dominion initially sought $1.6bn from Fox for “intentionally and falsely blaming Dominion for President Trump’s loss”. Tuesday’s settlement is roughly half that amount.
The settlement means that Fox News will avoid a high-profile trial, and conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, as well as controversial personalities including Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, will avoid having to give highly anticipated testimony. In pre-trial hearings, it was clear that Fox had aired false statements about Dominion in the wake of the election. However, to win at trial, Dominion would have had to prove that Fox News acted with actual malice — meaning that it knew the information it was sharing was wrong or that it showed a “reckless disregard” for the truth.
Revelations from pre-trial proceedings have already been embarrassing for Fox, with some showing television personalities and executives privately baulking at Trump’s claims related to the election, or expressing dislike for the former president, while appearing to support the claims and praising him on air. One filing showed that Murdoch described voter fraud claims from Trump and his former advisers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell as “damaging” and “really crazy stuff”. During a deposition, Murdoch also admitted that some on-air hosts had “endorsed” the false claims, but he denied that the network in its entirety had pushed the lie, court documents filed by Dominion showed.
Much of the material showed a network concerned about losing its audience after it declared that Biden won the critical swing state of Arizona on election night. That call infuriated Trump and many viewers who supported him. One of Fox’s top news anchors, Bret Baier, noted the audience’s anger and suggested rescinding the call or even awarding the state to Trump. “We don’t want to antagonise Trump further,” Murdoch said in a November 16 memo.
In court papers, Dominion argued: “Fox knew the truth… It knew the allegations against Dominion were ‘outlandish’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘ludicrous’ and ‘nuts’. Yet, it used the power and influence of its platform to promote that false story.” Fox, meanwhile, accused Dominion of “cherry-picking and taking quotes out of context”.
The settlement means that Fox News has acknowledged the court’s earlier ruling that certain claims that the network’s anchors made about Dominion were false. In a statement, Fox said “this settlement reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards. We are hopeful that our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion amicably, instead of the acrimony of a divisive trial, allows the country to move forward from these issues.”
Dominion disclosed the settlement figure on Tuesday, and its CEO John Poulos said Fox had admitted to telling lies about his company. Dominion 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 settlement is a significant blow to Fox News, which has been a vocal supporter of Trump throughout his presidency. It also highlights the ongoing debate around free speech and media responsibility in the United States. While constitutional free speech rights typically make it difficult for plaintiffs to win defamation suits in the country, the settlement suggests that there are limits to what media outlets can say without facing consequences.