Fox News avoided one of the highest-profile defamation trials in history Tuesday by reaching a settlement with Dominion Voting Systems, the company that accused the conservative channel of smearing its reputation in the weeks after the 2020 election.
The trial began Tuesday in Delaware Superior Court. The two sides reached a deal after a 12-person jury and 12 alternate jurors were selected.
The jury would have determined whether Fox News acted with malice by deliberately airing false statements about the Denver-based voting machine maker. Dominion was seeking $1.6 billion in damages.
The details of the monetary settlement were not disclosed, although the amount could show up in publicly held parent Fox Corp.’s financial filings.
Many legal analysts were surprised that the closely watched case had not settled before trial given the potential legal and reputational damage to Fox News.
The resolution means Fox News avoids a media spectacle at the Leonard Williams Justice Center in Wilmington, Del. More than 50 working press have been gathered for the trial with TV outlets stationed under tents outside the courthouse.
The conservative network’s biggest stars including Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo, and top executives such as 92-year-old Fox Corp. Executive Chairman Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan, were expected to be called to the witness stand.
Fox News entered the court proceeding at a disadvantage. Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric Davis ruled March 31 that on-air statements about Dominion made by network hosts and their guests were false.
Davis also shot down Fox’s assertion that its reporting on false allegations was justified because they were made by former President Trump and were therefore newsworthy.
“Just because someone is newsworthy doesn’t mean you can defame someone,” Davis said at an April 11 pretrial hearing.
Court filings in the case provided a glimpse into the inner workings of Fox News, with emails and texts showing how executives and hosts tried to balance their own disbelief of Trump’s allegations with their perceived need to mollify his supporters who habitually watch the network.
Depositions depicted a highly decentralized operation where management often did little to control what its on-air talent said on the air.
Dominion accused Fox News of amplifying false charges made by Trump’s attorneys Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani that the company’s machines manipulated votes to help elect President Biden.
There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud or any wrongful actions by Dominion. Claims to the contrary were fact-checked by some Fox News journalists and the network’s own research department, known as the “brain room.”
Dominion said Fox News acted out of fear that the MAGA faithful would tune out and move to upstart conservative network Newsmax, which was gaining viewership at the time.
While media coverage of Dominion’s case was voluminous and largely negative for Fox News, it did little to damage the network’s standing with its audience. It remains the most-watched cable news network, well ahead of CNN and MSNBC, according to Nielsen data.
However, the network’s standing in journalism circles has been diminished by the scandal. The media industry will be watching to see if Murdoch makes any significant changes to For News management or its lineup of on-air talent in reaction to the public humiliation his company has experienced.
Such moves could take awhile as Fox News management is averse to the public perception that Murdoch is responding to outside pressure.
Fox News is no stranger to paying out settlements as a means to make legal problems and scandals go away.
The company paid $20 million in 2017 to former anchor Gretchen Carlson, whose sexual harassment lawsuit against founding Fox News chief Roger Ailes was among the most high-profile in the #MeToo movement.
The network went on to pay millions in settlements to other women who brought forth harassment allegations.
A $15-million payout went to former Fox News personality Melissa Francis in 2022 after she filed a gender-based pay-disparity claim against the company.
Fox News also paid millions to the family of Seth Rich, a 27-year-old Democratic National Committee employee, after the network’s website published unsubstantiated stories that his 2016 murder was tied to the leak of Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Fox has sufficient cash reserves to pay the Dominion settlement with $4 billion in cash on hand, according to the company’s recent securities filings.
Fox News also is facing a $2.7-billion defamation lawsuit by Smartmatic, the voting software company that Trump’s lawyers falsely accused of manipulating vote counts in the 2020 presidential election. The company has accused Fox News and three of its on-air hosts — Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro — of presenting disinformation on their programs.
Fox referenced the Dominion and Smartmatic litigation in its last quarterly report, noting the company would “vigorously” defend itself against the claims of defamation, “including through any appeals.”
Since that filing, Fox has lost a series of court motions. But the company noted that it had the financial strength to weather the storm.
“The Company does not currently anticipate that the ultimate resolution of any such pending matters will have a material adverse effect on its business, financial condition, results of operations or cash flows.”
Times staff writer Meg James in Los Angeles contributed to this report.