Fox News has agreed to pay US$787.5-million to a Canadian voting machine company for spreading conspiracy theories about its role in the 2020 election, the first major legal settlement concerning lies that the vote was rigged.
The staggering sum, announced by Dominion Voting Systems minutes before a defamation trial was about to start, will allow Fox to avoid the spectacle of its owners, executives and anchors being publicly grilled over their role in promoting former U.S. president Donald Trump’s falsehoods about voter fraud.
“Fox has admitted to telling lies about Dominion that caused enormous damage to my company, our employees and the customers that we serve,” Dominion chief executive John Poulos told reporters Tuesday outside the courthouse in Wilmington, Del.
He did not respond to questions about whether he had received a direct apology from Fox owner Rupert Murdoch or anyone else at the company.
In the days following Joe Biden’s victory, Dominion became central to conspiracy theories by Mr. Trump and his supporters. They claimed that the company had been founded by late Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chavez to rig elections for him, that it was tied to left-wing billionaire George Soros and that it “flipped” votes for Mr. Trump to votes for Mr. Biden.
Using the pretrial discovery process, Dominion uncovered dozens of instances in which top Fox employees privately admitted that the conspiracy theories were groundless even as they were repeatedly airing them without debunking them.
In a statement, Fox avoided taking responsibility for lying, merely reiterating that a key pretrial ruling found it had spread falsehoods. “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” said the broadcaster, which did not answer a request for comment.
After a one-day delay in the trial to allow for settlement negotiations, legal proceedings looked set to get under way Tuesday. A jury was selected and Judge Eric Davis appointed a judicial official to determine whether Fox had turned over all evidence to Dominion.
Then, as lawyers for both sides waited in the courtroom to deliver opening statements, Justice Davis announced that a settlement had been reached.
Dominion had sought US$1.6-billion in damages against Fox. Dominion earned about US$118.3-million over three years in revenue, according to calculations by Forbes magazine, meaning the payout will represent a windfall.
The settlement, which could help set a precedent for limits on the spread of lies, comes as Mr. Trump continues to push 2020 conspiracy theories in his campaign to return to the White House in 2024.
Dominion’s lawyers vowed to press ahead with further legal action against election deniers. “We’re not done yet. We’ve got some other people who have some accountability coming toward them,” Steven Shackelford said outside court.
The company is suing Mr. Trump’s lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, as well as MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell. Smartmatic, another voting machine company, is also suing Fox for US$2.7-billion.
Dominion was founded by Mr. Poulos, an electrical engineer, in Toronto in 2003, and it swiftly expanded to the United States. For the 2020 presidential election, it supplied voting machines to 28 states.
Its case was bolstered during pretrial discovery when internal Fox messages, as well as depositions with the broadcaster’s key figures, showed that they knew Mr. Trump’s claims were lies.
In one e-mail exchange, Mr. Murdoch described the claims of election fraud as “terrible” and “damaging.” Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott wrote back that she, along with anchors Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, agreed. Presenter Tucker Carlson texted “Sidney Powell is lying” about vote rigging; anchor Laura Ingraham described her as “a complete nut” and executive Raj Shah referred to the conspiracy theories as “outlandish.”
But Fox staffers fretted they would lose viewers to other right-wing outlets, particularly Newsmax, if they didn’t give airtime to these claims.
Ahead of the expected six-week trial, Dominion signalled that it would call Mr. Murdoch, Ms. Scott, Mr. Carlson, Mr. Hannity, Ms. Ingraham and other top Fox personalities, raising the prospect that they would all be forced to publicly admit that Mr. Trump’s claims were false.
This was central to Dominion’s case that Fox acted with “actual malice” by slandering Dominion when it knew the claims were untrue.
Fox argued that the claims were covered by First Amendment freedom-of-speech protections and that the broadcaster had no obligation to inform viewers that the information it was airing was not actually true.
“Dominion confuses the obligation to truthfully report allegations with a purported requirement that the media rebut their underlying falsity. No such duty exists,” Fox wrote in one legal filing.
Dominion’s legal manoeuvres have already forced others to stop spreading election conspiracy theories. Within weeks of the election, Newsmax began making clear to viewers that there was no evidence to support allegations against Dominion. In one viral incident, a Newsmax anchor shut down Mr. Lindell when he tried to opine on such claims.
The settlement follows a landmark misinformation case last year in which conspiracist broadcaster Alex Jones was ordered to pay more than US$1.4-billion to the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting for falsely labelling the massacre a hoax.
While Fox is headquartered in New York and Dominion’s U.S. operations are based in Denver, both companies are registered in Delaware, a business-friendly jurisdiction that specializes in registering non-resident companies.