Dominion may have won a $787.5 million settlement from Fox News in its high-profile defamation suit, but it is unclear who the real winner is in this case.
On Tuesday, April 18, Dominion Voting Systems settled the defamation suit it had brought against Fox News after months of courtroom fighting. Dominion argued that Fox News had knowingly advanced “Big Lie” conspiracy theories around the 2020 election, which badly hurt its business. While Dominion had been seeking $1.6 billion in damages, the $787.5 million settlement is still one of the largest defamation settlements in United States history.
Defamation and journalistic integrity
Defamation is an incredibly dicey area of law, as it involves blurred lines between fact and opinion, as well as First Amendment protections. To prove defamation in a case like this, according to the “Sullivan Standard,” the plaintiff has to demonstrate actual malice or a reckless disregard for the truth, according to Cornell Law.
Amanda J. Crawford is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut whose research focuses on media ethics, media law, and disinformation. Well-versed in the world of defamation and libel, Crawford says that this case is critically important in the midst of recent attacks on the Sullivan Standard and journalistic freedom.
“There has been a concerted effort, especially among some conservatives who dislike the mainstream media, to dismantle the Sullivan protections,” said Crawford in an interview.
While there have been plenty of attacks on journalistic integrity in recent years, including a failed defamation case against The New York Times by Sarah Palin, the Fox-Dominion case exemplifies the need for protections like the Sullivan Standard.
“What we see with Fox is an egregious example of both knowledge of falsity and reckless disregard for the truth,” said Crawford. “I think that overall this is good for journalists because it shows that the system protects legitimate journalists who are trying to do their best to report the truth…and when you’re egregious and you do act with reckless disregard for the truth or knowledge of falsity, as Fox did, you’re going to be held accountable.”
The consequences of the settlement
In settling, Fox News avoided the protracted investigation and embarrassment — including their top executives and on-air talent testifying — that would have occurred in the event of a full-length trial. They also avoided having to issue an official apology.
However, legal filings did release some details to the public that point to Fox’s wrongdoing, indicating that even more evidence of guilt would have likely been exposed in a trial.
The Hill reports that Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his producer that Trump’s attorney at the time, Sidney Powell, “is lying” about election conspiracies. A private text message from Carlson about Trump was also released, with Carlson sharing: “I hate him passionately.” These private correspondences directly contradict the information and opinions Carlson was sharing on-air in reporting on the “Big Lie.”
Despite being a top-rated host at Fox News, nearly a week after the settlement, Tucker Carlson was fired from the network.
Who Really won?
Vanity Fair reports that “Dominion won, yes, but Fox won too. The only losing party is the public.”
While Dominion gets to take home a whopping $787.5 million, Fox was not required to apologize for its actions, and was spared a trial that likely would have unearthed much more controversy and caused a public spectacle. Furthermore, Fox News’ ratings have not been negatively impacted by the Dominion case.
“Dominion won, yes, but Fox won too. The only losing party is the public.”— Vanity Fair
With that said, a $787.5 million payment is no drop in the bucket, even for Fox. And the information unearthed in pretrial investigations, along with their decision to settle, does point to guilt on Fox’s part.
“I can see why there was a desire for a trial. This falls short of holding Fox fully accountable,” says Crawford. “But it doesn’t matter how big your company is, it doesn’t matter how pervasive your media outlet is, $787 million is no small amount of money. It is a giant settlement.”
In avoiding a trial, Dominion also got money in-hand, while avoiding extended legal fees and Fox’s potential ability to appeal court decisions.
This is not the end of Fox’s legal troubles. Smartmatic, another election company, is suing Fox for more than double the amount that Dominion was seeking: $2.7 billion. Dominion also has ongoing cases against other right-wing outlets such as Newsmax, One America News Network (OAN), as well as Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell.
It is unclear who really won in this settlement, and it will certainly not be the end of Fox News — but it may be a step in the right direction for journalistic integrity.
“Was there a thought that this would take down Fox?” said Crawford. “No. But I think we’re seeing it may reshape it some.”