Fox News abruptly agreed Tuesday to pay $787.5 million to settle a defamation lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems over the network’s promotion of misinformation about the 2020 election, avoiding a lengthy and embarrassing trial just as a courtroom full was sitting before hearing the opening statements. .

The settlement, one of the largest in a defamation case, was the latest extraordinary twist in a case that has been filled with remarkable revelations that exposed the inner workings of the most powerful voice in conservative news.

In addition to the enormous financial price, Dominion demanded a tough admission from Fox News, which acknowledged in a statement that “certain claims” it made about Dominion were false.

“The truth matters. Lies have consequences,” Justin Nelson, a Dominion attorney, said outside Delaware Superior Court Tuesday.

News of the breaking settlement shocked the entire courtroom in Wilmington, where the case was being heard. The air gasped when Judge Eric M. Davis told the jury shortly before 4 p.m. that the two sides had settled the matter. Lawyers for both sides had been preparing to speak to the jury for the first time, microphones attached to the lapels of their jackets.

The settlement spares Fox a trial that would have lasted weeks and would have put many of the company’s most prominent figures on the stand, from media mogul Rupert Murdoch to hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo.

The case had the potential to unleash a stream of damaging information about how the network told its audience a story of fraud and interference in the 2020 presidential election that many of its own executives and on-screen personalities did not believe. And the network was not forced to apologize, a concession Dominion’s lawyers had sought, lawyers involved in the case said.

Dominion sued two years ago, after Fox aired false stories claiming Dominion’s voting machines were susceptible to hacking and had swapped votes from President Donald J. Trump to Joseph R. Biden Jr. On Tuesday, the company expressed a sense of exoneration about the heavy financial cost Fox will have to pay. Although Dominion’s lawsuit sought $1.6 billion in damages, nearly double the settlement amount, the company will avoid many years of appeals that could have been cut or eliminated any judgment payments.

“More than two years ago, a torrent of lies led Dominion and election officials across the United States into an alternate universe of conspiracy theories that did serious damage to Dominion and the country,” Nelson said. “Today’s $787.5 million settlement represents vindication and accountability.”

The case and the long-awaited trial were significant because they raised the prospect of an elusive trial in the post-Trump era: very few allies of the former president have been held legally accountable for their role in spreading the falsehoods that undermined trust in the democratic system of the country. process and described Biden’s victory as illegitimate. Polls show that large numbers of Republicans still believe the 2020 election was tainted.

The size of the settlement, experts said, appears to be unprecedented. RonNell Andersen Jones, a law professor at the University of Utah SJ Quinney School of Law, said she believed it was one of the largest settlements in a defamation case in history.

“This was, without a doubt, the strongest libel case we have ever seen against a major media company,” said Ms Andersen Jones. The case was even more unusual, she added, because media companies typically seek to settle long before so much damaging information about their inner workings is released.

A deal was reached at the last possible minute, after months of almost no serious discussion between the two parties. As the case progressed, Dominion divulged extraordinary details about the doubts Fox employees privately expressed about the voter fraud allegations, even as they struck a different tone on the air.

“Settlement before this trove of evidence was made public would of course have been in Fox’s best interest,” said Ms Andersen Jones. “Waiting until the eve of the trial, when the entire nation had a chance to focus on what Fox was saying internally about Trump, his sources and his own viewers, gave Dominion the added layer of accountability he sought.” .

Defamation lawsuits rarely go to trial, in part because of the prohibition on proving “actual malice,” the legal standard that requires plaintiffs to prove that defendants knew what they were saying was a lie or that they had a reckless disregard for the truth. – it’s so tall. It is even rarer for one to present the volume of evidence that Dominion had amassed against Fox.

In the lead up to the trial, Dominion released reams of internal communications between Fox executives, anchors and producers that revealed how the nation’s most-watched cable news network launched a strategy to win back viewers who had tuned out after of Trump’s statement. loss. The messages tell the story of a frantic fight within Fox as it began to lose audience to competitors, such as Newsmax, who were more willing to report and support false claims about a plot involving Dominion machines to steal the election from Trump.

The producers referred to pro-Trump guests like Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani as “gold” for ratings and acknowledged that the audience did not want to hear about topics like the possibility of a peaceful transition from a Trump administration to a Biden administration. .

Those communications have shown how Fox employees expressed serious doubts and at times disparaged Trump and his allies while spreading lies about voter fraud, questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s election. Some on Fox mocked Trump and his lawyers as “crazy” and under the influence of drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms.

Some Fox hosts privately described their colleagues as “reckless” for endorsing Trump’s false claims, acknowledging that there was “no evidence” to back them up. Yet for weeks, Fox continued to provide a platform to election deniers, despite questions about its credibility. Dominion disputed statements made on multiple shows on multiple nights. Defamation cases typically involve a single disputed statement.

The trial would have been a show. Murdoch, whose family controls the Fox media empire, was scheduled to be one of Dominion’s first witnesses this week. Star presenters including Sean Hannity, Mr. Carlson and Ms. Bartiromo are likely to be called on at other points.

Even the blockbuster media lawsuits of the last generation—Ariel Sharon’s lawsuit against Time and General William C. Westmoreland’s lawsuit against CBS, both in the 1980s—lacked the most explosive elements of this case, which raised questions of weight on First Amendment protections. offers to the media and whether one of the most influential forces in conservative politics would have to pay a price for amplifying disinformation.

Both cases were also settled out of court.

In recent days, Fox has raised questions about Dominion’s damage claims. On Monday, he questioned Dominion’s value, pointing to a recent legal filing in which the company reduced part of its compensation request. Fox’s lawyers also expressed doubts about the damage Dominion had suffered, saying the company acknowledged that it had made a profit in recent years.

But the potential dangers of proceeding with a trial were real for Fox. Some of the revelations from Dominion’s depositions offered a preview of how damaging a trial could be. Murdoch acknowledged during his statement that some Fox hosts had “endorsed” Trump’s lies, an admission that undermined Fox’s defense that he was merely reporting, not amplifying, the former president’s claims.

After the deposition concluded, the general counsel of Fox Corporation, Viet Dinh, tried to reassure Murdoch that he had done the right thing.

“I’m just going to say it. They didn’t lay a finger on you,” Dinh said.

Murdoch disagreed, according to a person who witnessed the exchange. He pointed his finger at the lawyer who had questioned him about Dominion, Mr. Nelson, and said: “I think I would disagree with that.”

To which Mr. Nelson replied, “Certainly, I do.”

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