Fox News’ nearly $800 million settlement of a voting machine company’s defamation lawsuit marks the first milestone in a larger legal strategy designed to combat the false claims and conspiracy theories about elections that have rippled through the United States for nearly three years.
Several similar lawsuits are teed up against those who have spread election lies, including another against Fox. The plaintiffs range from a different voting technology company to Georgia election workers who were falsely accused of tampering with the vote count in that state. The defendants include close advisers to former President Donald Trump and a conservative group that funded a film last year alleging widespread voter fraud during the 2020 presidential election won by Democrat Joe Biden.
Lawyers involved in the effort describe it as an attempt to strike back against those whose lies about fraud in that election helped inspire the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and continue to circulate in conservative circles.
“Lies like these, that inflict serious harms on our democracy, have been costless,” said Rachel Goodman, a lawyer with the group Protect Democracy who is representing the Georgia election workers along with plaintiffs in other libel claims against election conspiracists. “This litigation creates accountability and makes clear that there are steep costs to recklessly or intentionally spreading fiction for political or personal profit.”
Yet even if the legal challenges keep generating eye-popping settlements or damage awards, it’s not clear they will change behavior or counter the attacks on democratic institutions.
“I personally do not regard a libel suit to be a good mechanism to deal with the disinformation problem,” said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota. “I keep coming back to this fear that we’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole here.”
The lawsuit against Fox News and its parent company, Fox Corp., from Dominion Voting Systems was one of the first defamation claims filed after Trump and his allies spent weeks falsely claiming the 2020 election was stolen. One of the initial conspiracy theories they floated was that the Denver-based voting machine company was part of an international cabal that threw the election to Biden.
Dominion sued Trump adviser and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, MyPillow founder Mike Lindell and others who helped spread the false theory. Dominion also sued the right-leaning news networks that repeatedly featured the theory in their coverage — two insurgent, pro-Trump channels, Newsmax and One America News Network, and the nation’s most-watched cable news network, Fox.
The Fox News case has generated the most attention. That’s because the litigation moved faster than others and also because it unearthed a trove of internal documents that showed Fox’s executives and prominent personalities were privately dismissive of Trump’s election claims but aired them anyway. Star hosts such as Tucker Carlson also expressed disdain for Trump in texts with colleagues.
Shortly after a Delaware jury was empaneled to hear the case Tuesday, Fox and Dominion agreed to settle the lawsuit for $787.5 million, which is more than half the profits Fox reported last year.
There is no requirement in the settlement that Fox admit airing inaccurate information. The network itself made a brief reference to “the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” but made no apologies or other marks of contrition in its statement. That statement also said: “This settlement reflects FOX’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.”
Some Fox critics were upset that the settlement didn’t include an admission of wrongdoing from the network.
“What’s most frustrating — it’s downright infuriating — about this outcome is how little accountability it demands from Fox News,” tweeted Andy Kroll, a journalist who wrote a book about conservative conspiracy theories surrounding the 2017 killing of a Democratic National Committee staffer, whose parents sued Fox.
Kathy Boockvar, Pennsylvania’s former top voting official, in an interview hours after the settlement, recalled crying during her deposition in the Dominion-Fox case when she recounted the death threats she received after the 2020 election. She said those threats spiked after Fox aired segments amplifying false accusations of mass fraud.
Boockvar said she was cheered by the settlement, even if it didn’t include an admission of wrongdoing.
“It would ideally be better to have part of the settlement include admissions of their knowingly broadcasting lies,” Boockvar said. “However, the very substantial amount of this settlement and the strong language from the judge last week speak volumes, and I believe it will help deter future flagrant disregard of the truth of this severity.”
In his ruling allowing the lawsuit to go to trial, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis said it was “CRYSTAL clear” that none of the allegations Fox aired about Dominion were true. Dominion CEO John Poulos said that while the settlement did not require an apology from Fox, the company felt the court system forced accountability on the network.
“For us, it was never really about Fox, per se. It was about telling the truth and the media telling the truth,” Poulos told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday. “And I think that what was important for us, is for people to be held to account for when they recklessly and knowingly tell lies that have such devastating consequences.”
Justin A. Nelson, Dominion’s lead attorney, said the size of the settlement will matter.
“There’s a long way still to make my client right,” Nelson said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We still have six more suits to go out there. But this was, as I say, just a tremendous victory. And when they’re paying nearly $800 million, three quarters of a billion dollars, that speaks to it.”
Still, Fox has continued to air misleading segments about the 2020 election and the threat to democracy posed by election lies, even as the Dominion case hurtled towards its conclusion. Last month, Carlson aired a segment playing down the severity of the Jan. 6 attack, drawing condemnation even from some Republican senators.
Fox faces more legal peril from a similar defamation claim filed by the voting company Smartmatic, which was briefly conflated with Dominion during the lies spread by Trump’s allies after the 2020 election. Additional lawsuits target other players in the conservative media world: The Georgia election workers filed a claim against Gateway Pundit, a popular right-wing website that has spread numerous conspiracy theories about 2020.
Goodman and Protect Democracy also are representing a Georgia man suing the conservative group True The Vote for including a video image in their film “2000 Mules” that shows the man legally dropping off ballots in 2020. That film falsely alleges widespread fraud by people illegally stuffing drop boxes.
Kirtley, however, noted that some of the other targets may not have the same internal documentation and standards of Fox, which retains a robust stable of reporters and positions itself as a straightforward, objective news organization.
Speaking about some of the other defendants in libel lawsuits, Kirtley said, “They don’t even have the veneer of being a journalistic enterprise.”
“It’s going to take a lot more than a secret settlement to dissuade their loyal viewers that they’re a credible news source,” Kirtley said of Fox.
—Nicholas Riccardi, The Associated Press