What the Dominion lawsuit revealed about Fox News and what’s next

Fox settled with the voting machine maker for $787m, but not before the case revealed embarrassing details about network.

Lawyers for Dominion exit the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, Delaware [Julio Cortez/The Associated Press]

A high-profile defamation case against Fox News and its parent corporation by voting systems company Dominion has ended with a last-minute settlement deal, allowing the conservative network to avoid a closely watched trial on the same day those proceedings were set to start.

Because of the $787.5m settlement, the public will not hear testimony – at least in this case – from Fox News owner and corporation chair Rupert Murdoch, or any of the firebrand conservative personalities that fill the network’s airtime. The public will also not see any new evidence to support Dominion’s allegation that the false information Fox News spread about the company in the wake of the 2020 presidential election amounted to “actual malice”.

The full details of the settlement have not been publicly released, although US media has reported Fox will not be required to issue an on-air apology.

Still, pre-trial proceedings and filings have been bruising for the news network, and have lifted the curtain behind the scenes of the influential company – which regularly averages the highest viewership of any cable news channel in the United States.

In a muted statement after the agreement was reached on Tuesday, Fox said, “We acknowledge the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.”

Adding that the settlement “reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards”.

Dominion lawyer Justin Nelson, meanwhile, said the settlement sum – far shy of $1.6bn the company had initially sought – “represents vindication and accountability”.

Here’s what we learned from the proceedings:

‘Crystal clear’ Fox aired false claims: Judge

It might not have amounted to the legal standard Dominion needed to win the case outright, but in late March, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis ruled that it was “CRYSTAL CLEAR” – writing in all caps in his decision – that Fox News spread false statements about Dominion in the wake of the 2020 election.

In legal filings, Dominion presented 20 specific instances of Fox’s coverage between November 8, 2020, and January 26, 2021, that it alleged showed the company knowingly promoted the lies. Davis’s ruling said Dominion had met the burden of proof to move ahead with the trial, but had not yet proven that Fox News pushed the falsehoods with “actual malice”, meaning with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.

The coverage Dominion pointed to included on-air comments from Fox hosts Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, many of which falsely suggested Dominion had ties to Venezuela’s government or that there were irregularities with the machines.

In one instance, Bartiromo said in a question to Trump lawyer Sidney Powell on November 8, 2020: “Sidney, we talked about the Dominion software. I know that there were voting irregularities. Tell me about that.”

On November 14, 2020, Dobbs quote-tweeted Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, with the host adding, “Read all about Dominion and Smartmatic voting companies and you’ll soon understand how pervasive this Democrat electoral fraud is, and why there’s no way in the world the 2020 Presidential election was either free or fair.” 

Murdoch believed election to be genuine, feared ‘antagonising’ Trump

Despite the coverage, network executive chairman Murdoch said during a deposition that he “thought the election was genuine” and it was “bad advice to encourage [Trump] being a bad loser”, court documents showed. He added he privately urged top Republicans to not endorse Trump’s “conspiracy theories and baseless claims of fraud”.

Murdoch, in one exchange captured in court documents, said that much of what Trump was saying in the wake of the election was “b******* and damaging”.

He also admitted some Fox commentators “endorsed” the unfounded claim that the election was stolen, but said the network did not do so wholesale.

Dominion argued the statements showed the media mogul knew Trump’s fraud claims to be false, but that Fox continued to give a platform to Trump lawyers Giuliani and Powell, who were leading the campaign to overturn the election.

Murdoch also expressed fear of the former president, and his substantial sway among viewers, in a post-election email, saying, “We don’t want to antagonise Trump further.”

He later explained why during a deposition: “[Trump] had a very large following, and they were probably mostly viewers of Fox, so it would have been stupid.”

Concern about post-election viewership drop; call for ‘decisive action’

Documents unsealed in February also showed that Fox News executives warned of “strong conservative and viewer backlash to Fox” in the wake of the election, particularly related to the network calling Arizona for US President Joe Biden on election night.

The executive in charge of brand protection, Raj Shah, in messages, noted that Fox was under “heavy fire” from its customer base in the wake of the election.

He urged “bold, clear and decisive action” to the company’s leaders, which he said was needed to “begin to regain the trust that we’re losing with our core audience”, according to court documents.

Murdoch also suggested in a January 5, 2021, message that top hosts could go on air to definitively declare that Biden won the election, saying it “would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election was stolen”.

In response to the suggestion, Fox News chief Suzanne Scott wrote to a subordinate, “I told Rupert that privately they are all there – we need to be careful about using the shows and p*** off the viewers but they know how to navigate.”

Private disdain for Trump and his fraud claims

Court documents also displayed pervasive scepticism of Trump’s fraud claims among Fox staffers, and outright disdain for the former president.

Host Tucker Carlson, in a text to host Laura Ingraham, wrote that Trump lawyer Powell was “lying” and he had “caught her”. Ingraham responded, “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy [Giuliani].”

Just six days earlier, Carlson had internally called for White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich to be fired after she publicly fact-checked a Trump tweet pushing the fraud claims, court documents showed.

“Please get her fired,” Carlson told host Sean Hannity in a text message. “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Despite continually supporting Trump on air, Carlson expressed personal disdain to colleagues.

“I hate him passionately,” he wrote in a January 4, 2021 text to a staffer, saying he was looking forward to “being able to ignore Trump most nights”.

What comes next?

It has remained unclear what effect the settlement will have on Fox’s operations, with the New York Times reporting a recent filing showed that the Fox Corporation had $4.1bn “of cash and equivalents” on hand at the end of last year.

At the same time, Fox still faced a $2.7bn defamation lawsuit filed by voting technology company Smartmatic, which has alleged the post-election lies broadcast by the company “decimated” its business. It alleged Fox knowingly pushed more than 100 “false statements and implications” related to the company.

On Tuesday, a lawyer for Smartmatic, Erik Connolly, said the lawsuit would pick up where Dominion left off.

Fox dominion
A protester holds a sign near representatives of Fox News in Wilmington, Delaware [Julio Cortez/The Associated Press]

“Dominion’s litigation exposed some of the misconduct and damage caused by Fox’s disinformation campaign. Smartmatic will expose the rest,” Connolly said. “Smartmatic remains committed to clearing its name, recouping the significant damage done to the company, and holding Fox accountable for undermining democracy.”

In February, an appeals court ruled the case was allowed to proceed. Smartmatic was only used in Los Angeles County during the 2020 election, making its scope much narrower than Dominion, which was used in 24 states.

Dominion also still has pending defamation lawsuits against Giuliani, Powell, and other Trump allies who publicly pushed unfounded claims related to the company. They are also suing two pro-Trump channels, Newsmax and One America News Network.

Source: Al Jazeera