- Fox News kept its position atop right-wing media and fought off rivals while settling with Dominion.
- It can afford the hefty price tag, and top executives and hosts won’t have to testify under oath.
- More defamation lawsuits are on the horizon, and Dominion and Smartmatic have strong hands.
WILMINGTON, Delaware — Just a couple of hours after a judge seated a jury for what was supposed to be the defamation trial of the century, Dominion and Fox agreed to settle their case.
Fox News said it would shell out $787.5 million to Dominion, an election technology company that was the target of right-wing conspiracy theories falsely claiming it rigged the 2020 presidential election against Donald Trump. By a large margin, it’s the biggest publicly known settlement for a defamation case in US history.
In the moments after I watched the judge announce the settlement in court, 16 things went through my mind:
1. Fox gets to keep its audience.
Dominion’s CEO, lawyers, and corporate owners blasted Fox News in a press conference outside Delaware Superior Court following news of the settlement.
On Fox’s end, it’s hard to imagine a more tepid statement.
“We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” the company said in an email as its lawyers dodged journalists. “This settlement reflects FOX’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards. 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.”
Pay attention to the first bit. The company acknowledged Judge Eric M. Davis’ ruling, made last month, that it broadcasted false claims from Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani.
Not “we lied,” or “sorry,” or “we’ll do better next time.”
A person familiar with the settlement terms told Insider that Fox News’ hosts — including Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Jeanine Pirro, and Maria Bartiromo — would not be required to issue retractions or make any statements about Dominion whatsoever. Davis ruled that all of those hosts broadcast falsehoods about Dominion.
In other words: Fox doesn’t admit to anything, except that the judge is right. Aside from forking over money, they get to do things on their own terms. The network’s hosts don’t have to tell their audience what they don’t want to hear.
That audience may not want to hear, for instance, that Trump really lost the 2020 election. Recent polls show a majority of Republicans don’t believe Biden legitimately won the presidency. As Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch himself said in a deposition for the Dominion case, Trump’s fans and Fox News’ audience have a lot of overlap, and he didn’t want to antagonize the then-president in the election’s aftermath.
“He had a very large following, and they were probably mostly viewers of Fox, so it would have been stupid,” Murdoch said.
2. $787.5 million was the price to keep it.
Dominion asked for $1.6 billion in damages and got about half of that, not counting legal fees. It’s still a massive settlement.
You can also say that number was the price Fox paid to keep itself at the top of the right-wing media universe.
Fox clearly wanted to make a tepid statement about the case and avoid issuing retractions or denunciations of its own employees. Did that requirement drive up the price Dominion wanted it to pay?
One of the main arguments in Dominion’s lawsuit, filed back in March 2021, was that Fox was driven to push lies about the 2020 election because it was threatened by the rise of Newsmax and One America News, two further-right media organizations that Dominion says more explicitly embraced election conspiracy theories.
Evidence obtained by Dominion in the lawsuit and filed to court ahead of the settlement appeared to support that theory. Hannity and Carlson privately fretted that Newsmax’s ratings could threaten Fox’s dominance.
“Serious $$ with serious distribution could be a real problem. Imho they need to address but wtf do I know,” Hannity wrote in a text message obtained by Dominion, referring to Newsmax.
“Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real….an alternative like newsmax could be devastating to us,” Carlson told his producer in another message included in filings.
Newsmax and OAN are already in dire straits after DirecTV dropped them from its programming listings. Dominion and Smartmatic — a rival election technology company caught up in false 2020 election conspiracy theories — have separate pending defamation lawsuits against them as well.
3. Fox avoided a likely reckoning in court.
It’s extremely hard to win a defamation case against a media company in the US, given the country’s strong First Amendment protections.
Unfortunately for Fox, First Amendment experts widely agreed Dominion had an extremely strong case. James Goodale, a leading media lawyer and former top attorney for the New York Times, told Insider that Fox put itself in a terrible position by repeatedly hosting Powell and Giuliani on its shows. Most libel cases, he said, are over only a single disputed issue.
“In an ordinary libel case, that probably would happen once, and you fight over that one instance,” Goodale told Insider. “In here — I don’t know, what’s the number, a hundred? — it happens over and over and over again.”
4. Rupert Murdoch and other Fox brass won’t have to testify.
A settlement means that 92-year-old Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch gets to stay home and avoid the glare of the courtroom. His son, Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch, can kick back on his $150 million yacht instead of making the trek to Wilmington, Delaware.
It also means that executives like Fox News President Jay Wallace and CEO Suzanne Scott, and hosts like Hannity, Carlson, and the litany of others Dominion said they intended to call as witnesses, avoid the drama of a trial as well.
While Fox News’ detractors might love to see them grilled on the witness stand, Dominion got to use the prospect of testifying under oath as leverage to extract the largest settlement possible.
5. Dominion won’t have to deal with appeals.
Even if Dominion won at trial, it would still face the prospect of years of appeals. Both Fox and Dominion hired prominent appellate attorneys for the case. In court Tuesday, each side had about two dozen lawyers filling the rows. And Fox Corp.’s top lawyer, Viet Dinh, reportedly believed Fox had good odds of winning their case if it appealed to the Supreme Court. First Amendment experts Insider spoke to strongly disagreed with Dinh on that point.
Now, Dominion doesn’t have to deal with any of that. So that’s nice for them.
6. Fox, though, has to deal with shareholder lawsuits.
A historically large settlement like this might mean Fox Corp., the parent company of Fox News, will have the headache of shareholders who will claim it overpaid.
One shareholder filed a suit earlier this year in Delaware Chancery Court alleging the company breached its fiduciary duties by allowing the network to broadcast election lies in the first place, exposing it to litigation from Smartmatic and Dominion.
7. Fox can afford it.
Fox Corp. has nearly $4.1 billion of cash on hand, Lachlan Murdoch said in February. The company, which also includes Fox Sports and the streaming service Tubi, is valued at more than $17.6 billion.
It’s not clear if any of the $787.5 million settlement figure will be borne by libel insurance. Representatives and attorneys for Fox Corporation declined to answer Insider’s questions about insurance arrangements.
8. Still — wow!
Did I mention that $787.5 million is the biggest known defamation settlement in US history? Feels like that needs its own item on this list.
The runner-up is the $177 million Disney paid to settle the infamous “pink slime” lawsuit against its subsidiary ABC News in 2017.
The lawyer who represented the plaintiff suing ABC News in that case is J. Erik Connolly.
He’s now representing Smartmatic in its lawsuit against Fox News.
9. Smartmatic is still suing.
Speaking of which, Smartmatic’s separate lawsuit against Fox News is still moving forward.
“Dominion’s litigation exposed some of the misconduct and damage caused by Fox’s disinformation campaign. Smartmatic will expose the rest,” Connolly said in a statement on Tuesday. “Smartmatic remains committed to clearing its name, recouping the significant damage done to the company, and holding Fox accountable for undermining democracy.”
Smartmatic’s lawsuit, in New York state court, may be an even greater risk for Fox.
It’s asking for $2.7 billion in damages. The suit also counts Giuliani as a defendant; it has a separate lawsuit against Powell for jurisdictional reasons.
And as outlandish as Giuliani’s and Powell’s claims about Dominion were, Smartmatic’s were even more fantastical. The company’s technology was used in elections for only two counties in the US 2020 election. Dominion’s was used in multiple states. Smartmatic has also been able to bolster its own case by drawing on evidence filed in Dominion’s lawsuit.
For the same reasons Fox settled Dominion’s suit, it likely wants to settle Smartmatic’s suit as well — and before Smartmatic makes public more embarrassing revelations from its discovery process.
10. The settlement is a victory for Delaware courts.
The settlement helps bolster the Delaware court system’s reputation as a place to resolve business disputes with minimal fuss, as The Chancery Daily noted.
Tuesday’s events, in some ways, echo last fall, where Elon Musk reached a settlement with Twitter where he agreed to purchase the company for $44 million shortly before a case was supposed to go to trial. Twitter had sued him for trying to back out of a deal where he agreed to buy the company for that sum. (Things haven’t been going too well for Musk since.)
Smartmatic’s lawsuit against Fox, it should be noted, is in New York, where a judge has had little patience with Fox’s legal positions.
11. I wouldn’t want to be Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, or Mike Lindell right now.
For a lot of reasons. Legally speaking, the three are most directly responsible for the proliferation of false conspiracy theories about Dominion and Smartmatic that, according to a legal process, have caused at least $787.5 million in damages.
Fox News broadcast them and at times endorsed the claims, Dominion argued. But no one has hammered away at the falsehoods as prolifically and loudly as those three.
Mike Lindell is pretty wealthy, but I’d wager he doesn’t have that much money.
12. Fox dropped a big hint it would settle the suit earlier this month.
On April 8, Fox arrived at a “confidential agreement” to settle a separate defamation lawsuit from Venezuelan businessman Majed Khalil, according to a court filing.
After Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, then-Fox Business News host Lou Dobbs said on Twitter that Khalil helped rig votes, an alleged plot the Trump ally amounted to a “cyber Pearl harbor” and “electoral 9-11.”
Khalil sued for $250 million.
Fox and an attorney for Khalil declined to comment on the settlement, so it’s not clear how much he got in the end. But it was a clear signal the right-wing media company was willing to pay to make these cases go away.
13. Abby Grossberg takes the stage.
The weeks before the settlement were beset with twists from Abby Grossberg, a former producer for Carlson and Bartiromo. She filed lawsuits alleging Fox discriminated against her because of her gender, and that Fox lawyers coached her into giving false deposition testimony for Dominion’s lawsuit. Fox fired her and denied wrongdoing.
Her litigation upped the stakes for the case, bringing forth additional evidence suggesting Fox News knew that Giuliani’s and Powell’s claims about Dominion were false.
Her attorneys on Tuesday pledged to keep her fight going and lambasted “the network’s abhorrent culture of lawlessness.” The lawsuits are yet another headache Fox has to deal with.
14. Fox News dodged another legal bullet.
Because of how Fox handled evidence related to Grossberg — as well as other evidence about Murdoch’s role in Fox News — the judge appointed a special master on Tuesday morning to investigate whether Fox properly complied with the discovery process.
The investigation could have been even more embarrassing for Fox. Davis ruled that the special master could subpoena whoever he wanted and that Fox would have to pay all associated costs.
By Tuesday afternoon, the situation was moot. The settlement meant that the special master’s investigation was called off, as NBC News reported.
15. Too bad for the media reporters.
For the media reporters covering this trial, this was the story of the century. Even without a full-blown trial, the case was still an incredible story. So much of Fox News’ inner workings have been exposed already. This trial was a great opportunity for more juicy material.
Still, I feel a little bad for Brian Stelter, the former CNN host who announced he was working on a book about Fox News partially based on the trial, and who got a part time Vanity Fair gig covering the case. What’s he going to do now? Stelter didn’t immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
Rupert Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff got a Sky TV commentator job to cover the case and was reportedly in talks to write a book about it. Outside court after news of the settlement, he lamented about his “lost weekend in Wilmington.”
Oh well. There’s always the Smartmatic case.
16. This was great for Dominion’s private equity owner.
A majority of Dominion is owned by Staple Street Capital, a private equity firm.
In court filings ahead of the settlement, Fox complained about the $1.6 billion price tag Dominion put on the lawsuit. Internal valuations, it argued, showed it was worth closer to $100 million. Staple Street, Fox said, was just looking for a payday.
“Would be pretty unreal if you guys like 20x’ed your Dominion investment with these lawsuits,” read one text to a Staple Street executive cited in a Fox court filing.
Well, Staple Street got a return on its investment, alright. Moments before the judge announced the settlement Tuesday, an executive in court looked like she could hardly suppress a smile.