Explained | Why did Fox News opt to settle with election technology firm Dominion Voting Systems?

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Reporters surround the attorneys for Dominion Voting Systems during a news conference outside the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, Del. on April 18.

Reporters surround the attorneys for Dominion Voting Systems during a news conference outside the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, Del. on April 18.
| Photo Credit: AP

The story so far: Fox News, the U.S.-based conservative news channel, has agreed at the 11th hour before trial began, to pay $787.5 million to settle claims brought by election technology firm Dominion Voting Systems. The firm accused the broadcaster of knowingly spreading false information about the company after the 2020 election, to support propaganda that the election was stolen from former President Donald Trump in favour of the current President Joe Biden. There are several other lawsuits that Fox News faces, relating to falsehoods propagated about the 2020 presidential election, which could be equally damaging to the news channel, and which now stand on firmer ground in light of the Dominion settlement.

What are the claims against Fox News?

The actual settlement agreed between Fox News and Dominion is a little less than half of the amount originally claimed by Dominion, which was $1.6 billion. It claimed this amount on account of its allegation that Fox News and its parent company, Rupert Murdoch-owned Fox Corporation, caused damage to the voting company’s business and threatened its staff by implicating them in a false conspiracy about rigged elections designed to sabotage the prospects of Mr. Trump entering the White House.

The Dominion lawsuit claims that during the weeks following the election day in 2020, leading Fox News anchors engaged on their shows with Trump allies who falsely claimed that Dominion’s voting machines had been deliberately programmed to deduct votes away from Mr. Trump and, in parallel, boost the numbers under Mr. Biden’s column.

Why did Fox News opt to settle?

Fox News has not made any public comments on the settlement other than to say, “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” and that the settlement “reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.”

However, it is likely that if the case had gone to trial before a jury, it would have exposed the inner workings of the network to even more scrutiny. In forcing a level of accountability at Fox News, a trial would have turned the spotlight on the channel’s senior-most anchors including the likes of Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, and grilled them with hard questions on why they opted to spread lies about the election that they likely did not believe themselves.

Yet the strongest factor, likely to have made a settlement appear to be the best option for Fox News, is the fact that Dominion had managed to gather an extraordinary amount of evidence in terms of internal documents of the media house. The documents showed not only widespread organisational dysfunction but also clear proof that many insiders at Fox News knew that the Dominion election conspiracy theory was complete fiction and had no basis in reality. Reports suggest that the documentary evidence in this regard pointed to Fox News’ highest ranks including Mr. Murdoch. In terms of U.S. law, the strength of this evidence is said to have given the Dominion lawsuit sufficient ammunition to cross, according to reports, the “legal threshold in defamation cases known as ‘actual malice’ — established when defamatory statements are ‘made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or not.’”

What are the broader implications?

In a sense the Dominion settlement reflects the limits of the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution. As the discussion around the concept of ‘actual malice’ shows, there is a high standard of proof under U.S. law required to establish defamation. Indeed, Fox News said earlier that “Dominion’s lawsuit is a political crusade in search of a financial windfall, but the real cost would be cherished First Amendment rights.”

However, the point is that it was the very same lies about the “stolen election” that made it possible for Mr. Trump and his associates to play a role in fuelling the January 6, 2021, riots leading to the assault of the Capitol buildings in Washington.

In that context, had the propagandistic messaging of Fox News remained unchecked it would likely presage an even more drastic return to the sort of yellow journalism seen in the late 19th century, such as the Hearst newspapers that is said to have egged on the Spanish-American war in the 1890s.

The settlement with Dominion is also likely to have a strong bearing on several other lawsuits that Fox News is facing for the same reasons — spreading election related falsehoods designed to aid Mr. Trump’s cause.

Among these is a case brought by Smartmatic, another election technology company, which has filed a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News; and a case brought by a former Fox News producer, Abby Grossberg, saying that Fox’s lawyers pushed her to “give a misleading deposition in the Dominion case and alleging a hostile and discriminatory work environment”

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