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Will Fox's $800m settlement to Dominion be a deterrent to spreading misinformation?

Reporters surround attorneys for Dominion Voting Systems after the defamation lawsuit against Fox News was settled just as the jury trial was set to begin
Reporters surround attorneys for Dominion Voting Systems after the defamation lawsuit against Fox News was settled just as the jury trial was set to begin Copyright Julio Cortez/Copyright 2023 The AP
Copyright Julio Cortez/Copyright 2023 The AP
By Katy Dartford with AP
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Fox has half-heartedly acknowledged the court’s rulings that certain claims about Dominion were false but offered no apology.

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Fox's $787 million (€729 million) agreement to pay Dominion Voting Systems on Tuesday makes it one of the biggest ever financial settlements in a defamation case.

The case had embarrassed Fox News over several months and raised the possibility that network founder Rupert Murdoch and stars such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity would have to testify publicly.

The stunning settlement also ends a trial that could have shed additional light on former President Donald Trump's election lies, revealed more about how the right-leaning network operates and even redefined libel law in the US.

No apology

Outside of the millions promised to Colorado-based Dominion, it was unclear what other consequences Fox would face. 

Fox half-heartedly acknowledged in a statement “the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” but offered no apology.   

“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,” Fox said. 

Fox News has said little on air about the settlement. Hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, who had been expected to testify in the Dominion trial, did not reference it.

Meanwhile, Fox mocked CNN’s viewership in response to remarks by CNN host Jake Tapper, who laughed while reading Fox News’ statement on the settlement.

“I’m sorry. This is going to be difficult to say with a straight face,” Tapper said during his show “The Lead”. 

He called the settlement one of the “most embarrassing moments” in journalism history. 

In a statement to The Hill, Fox said:

“We can’t look at CNN’s awful ratings without laughing and we’re sure Warner Bros. Discovery shareholders feel the same way”.

The trial has had no apparent effect on Fox News' viewership either; it remains the top-rated cable network. 

And there is little indication that the case has changed Fox's editorial direction. Fox has embraced Trump once again in recent weeks following the former president's indictment by a Manhattan grand jury.

Julio Cortez/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Stephen Shackelford, left, Davida Brook, center, and Justin Nelson, attorneys for Dominion Voting Systems, react after the defamation lawsuit against Fox News was settledJulio Cortez/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

No public accountability

There has been growing criticism that the settlement allows those with money to escape facing public accountability. Brian Stelter, a media reporter who has written extensively about Fox, tweeted after the settlement: “You could argue that Dominion wins but the public loses,”

A deterrent to spreading misinformation?

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Coupled with other lawsuits in the pipeline, the agreement shows there is a real financial risk for conservative media that traffic in conspiracy theories. 

Fox still faces a defamation lawsuit from another voting technology company, Smartmatic. Its lawyer, Erik Connolly, said Tuesday that “Dominion’s litigation exposed some of the misconduct and damage caused by Fox’s disinformation campaign. Smartmatic will expose the rest.”

How much of a deterrent this will be is questionable. Even as the Dominion case loomed this spring, Fox's Tucker Carlson aired his alternate theories about what happened at the January 6, 2021 insurrection.

If anyone will face consequences for airing false statements is also unclear. 

After the settlement, Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News political director who was fired after correctly calling the 2020 election for Joe Biden, told Semafor: “The part that I'm interested in seeing is: What does the apology sound like? Who gets fired? What are the consequences inside the company?”

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Libel laws intact

If the case had gone to trial, it also would have presented one of the sternest tests to a libel standard that has protected media organisations for more than half a century.

In its defence, Fox relied on a doctrine of libel law that has been in place since a 1964 US Supreme Court ruling. The doctrine has made it difficult for some claimants to prove defamation by news outlets. Public figures, (including Dominion in this case) have to prove not only that the information reported was incorrect but that the news organisation acted with “reckless disregard” about whether it was true or not.

Some First Amendment advocates suggested the voting machine company had a strong argument. But they worried that a prolonged legal battle would give the Supreme Court a chance to change libel laws that would weaken protection for all media.

The nearly six-decade legal standard has also come under attack by some conservatives in recent years, including Trump and Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who have argued for making it easier to win a libel case.

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“The larger importance of the settlement ... is that the high level of protection for news media in a defamation case remains intact for now,” said Doreen Weisenhaus, an instructor of media law at Northwestern University.

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