FILE – A person walks past the Fox News Headquarters in New York, Wednesday, April. 12, 2023. AP
American news channel Fox News on Tuesday reached a $787.5 million settlement in a defamation case brought by voting technology company Dominion that alleged the network knowingly aired false claims linking its machines to a conspiracy to undermine the 2020 US presidential election.
The agreement to end the case avoided what most experts suggested would have been a damaging, high-profile trial for the channel in which owner Rupert Murdoch would have been compelled to testify in open court.
Judge Eric Davis announced the last-minute agreement after the 12 jurors had been selected and the Delaware Superior Court was readying to hear opening arguments.
Dominion’s co-lead counsel Justin Nelson told reporters outside court that the settlement “represents vindication and accountability.”
The network later published a brief statement saying it was “pleased” to have ended the dispute.
“We acknowledge the court’s ruling finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” it added.
The trial had been due to testing the limits of free speech rights for media in America, even if willingly broadcasting misinformation.
The settlement means Murdoch and star anchors, such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity will avoid having to take the witness stand.
Dominion sued Fox News for $1.6 billion in March 2021, alleging it promoted Donald Trump’s baseless claim that its machines were used to rig the 2020 presidential election that he lost to Joe Biden.
Dominion argued that Fox News aired the falsehoods while knowing they were untrue.
The trial was set to be one of the most consequential libel cases ever heard in the United States. It also threatened reputational and financial damage for Murdoch’s 24-hour news behemoth and the media titan himself.
Dominion said the network began endorsing Trump’s conspiracy because the channel was losing its audience after it became the first television outlet to call the southwestern state of Arizona for Biden, effectively projecting the Democrat would win the presidency.
‘Was only reporting on Trump’s allegations’
Fox News denied defamation. It is claimed it was only reporting on Trump’s allegations, not supporting them, and was protected by free speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment of the US Constitution.
The protection makes it difficult for plaintiffs to win defamation suits in the United States.
In pre-trial hearings, Davis ruled that there was no question Fox aired false statements about Dominion.
For Dominion to have won however, it would have to have proven Fox News acted with actual malice — knowing the information was wrong or having a “reckless disregard” for the truth.
The tough burden has been a bedrock of US media law since 1964.
Dominion released a trove of internal Fox News communications in which some commentators and executives balked at Trump’s claims and even expressed a dislike of the ex-president despite praising him on air — evidence, it said, of malice.
A filing showed that Murdoch described comments by former Trump advisors Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell pushing Trump’s claim that the election was stolen from him as “really crazy stuff. And damaging.”
Murdoch was also admitted in a deposition in the case that some on-air hosts had “endorsed” the false claim but he denied that the network in its entirety had pushed the lie, according to court documents filed by Dominion.
Star anchor Tucker Carlson told staff he couldn’t wait until he could “ignore Trump most nights.”
“I hate him passionately,” Carlson said.
Fox News accused Dominion of “cherry-picking and taking quotes out of context.”
The network employs some traditional news reporters, but the majority of its airtime is given to conservative commentators, including in prime-time shows.
With input from AFP
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