Risk of Reporting Fake News
Dominion had gathered an unusual amount of internal documentation from Fox showing that many inside the company knew the Dominion election conspiracy theory was pure fantasy, as many legal experts had argued before the trial.
Fox News reached a settlement with Dominion Voting Systems to avoid a protracted legal proceeding. The trial would have involved questioning the network's founder and CEO, Rupert Murdoch, and other prominent executives and personalities regarding their role in disseminating a false and defamatory conspiracy theory concerning the 2020 election.
Fox's statement from the courthouse admitting that the court had found "certain claims about Dominion" aired on its programming "to be false" is a rare and public admission of informational wrongdoing by a major player in conservative media and the most-watched cable network in the United States. The settlement agreement is among the largest defamation settlements in history at $787.5 million.
Dominion attorney Stephen Shackelford outside the courthouse, declared, "Money is accountability, and we got that today from Fox."
The agreement's provisions, unexpectedly disclosed before the commencement of opening statements by legal representatives, did not mandate that Fox issue an apology for any misconduct in its own programming. It has been reported that Dominion had been advocating for such a requirement.
Following the dispute resolution, Fox expressed optimism that the amicable settlement with Dominion, as opposed to a contentious trial, would facilitate the country's progression beyond these concerns.
The agreement entails a tacit admission of "no contest" to a number of pretrial determinations made by the presiding judge, Eric M. Davis, which portrayed Fox's programming in an exceedingly negative manner.
One of the rulings favored Dominion. The judge agreed with their claim that Fox was not entitled to assert the legal protection of "news gathering" for disseminating the conspiracy theory. This theory pertained to the baseless allegation that Dominion's machines had manipulated votes from Trump to Biden. The protection of news organizations is typically invoked when there is a dispute over facts. The presiding judge articulated that the available evidence does not substantiate the claim that FNN engaged in impartial and bona fide journalism.
The judge's statement in another discovery reveals that the evidence presented in this civil litigation unequivocally establishes that none of the statements concerning Dominion with regard to the 2020 election are accurate.
Fox's ability to argue that it was operating as a news network chasing the assertions of a newsmaker, in this instance, the president of the United States, who was the main trumpet for the false Dominion story, was severely hindered as a result of the judge's findings due to the fact that those facts severely constrained Fox's capacity to do so.
During those tense days leading up to the first day of the trial, Fox had given the impression that if it were found guilty after the trial, it would prepare an appeal that would, at the very least partially, disagree with the judge's judgments. They are now established without question.
By the time Tuesday's workday came to a close, it was abundantly evident that Fox's legal team was making a hasty calculation to accept the financial blow rather than run the chance of being unsuccessful in court.
Dominion acquired an exceptional quantity of internal paperwork from Fox, which showed that many people working for the firm knew the Dominion election conspiracy claim was a complete and utter fabrication. That included even the highest-ranking members of the network, all the way up to Mr. Murdoch himself. This was the argument that so many legal experts had made before the trial.
The evidence mentioned above seemed to bring Dominion close to the legal standard in defamation cases referred to as "actual malice," which is established when defamatory statements are made with knowledge of their falsity or reckless disregard for their own truthfulness. Nevertheless, attaining that standard can be challenging, and there are no assurances of success when presenting a case to a jury.
According to Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, Dominion Voting had presented significant critical evidence indicating that Fox had acted with either actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth. This evidence could have been demonstrated to a jury, leaving only the issue of damages to be resolved. The presentation of evidence in an open court during the trial could have damaged Fox's reputation.
The timing of Fox's settlement on Tuesday was more unexpected than the actual decision to settle. A potential legal proceeding would have entailed a legal confrontation between Fox News personnel and Mr. Murdoch regarding their awareness of the falsity of certain information and their failure to intervene and prevent its dissemination. The responses would have revealed additional details about the internal methods of an entity that has historically kept its internal procedures confidential.
The question that remains unanswered and can only be determined over time is whether the settlement amount was sufficient to prompt Fox News to alter its approach toward managing contentious and slanderous conspiracy-related material. The sum in question is of considerable magnitude, specifically $787.5 million. Given the recent settlement agreement, the prospect of facing additional legal cases, including a $2.7 billion lawsuit from Smartmatic, an election technology company, is likely not a desirable outcome for Fox News.
However, Fox successfully evaded Dominion's objective of an on-air confession or expression of regret, thereby absolving itself from the obligation to impose either on its viewership, who were not extensively apprised of the matter on Fox's programs from the outset.
According to trial lawyer Michelle Simpson Tuegel, it is difficult to determine the extent of the potential harm that a verdict against Fox would cause the company, aside from the financial implications. This is due to the strong loyalty of Fox's audience and their acceptance of the polarized viewpoints presented by the opinion hosts. The potential damage to the parties' reputation resulting from the testimony of executives, including Chairman Rupert Murdoch, and hosts appears to have motivated them towards reaching a resolution.