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Fox News settles defamation lawsuit with election tech firm Dominion Voting Systems

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

$787,500,000.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's how much Fox News is paying a voting technology company as part of a legal settlement. The company, Dominion Voting Systems, had sued Fox for defamation over lies the network broadcast following the 2020 presidential election.

MARTÍNEZ: Here's Dominion lawyer, Stephen Shackelford, after the deal was announced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN SHACKELFORD: Money is accountability, and we got that today from Fox.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been covering the case. He joins us from Wilmington, Del.

David, is this settlement an acknowledgment that Fox did, indeed, lie?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Yes and no. And let's start with the no. It's a very passively constructed statement. It says, you know, that Fox acknowledges the court's ruling that certain statements about Dominion Voting Systems were false. And that's technically true. What it doesn't say is that Fox itself broadcast and at times embraced those claims. And there's no apology on the air. But that said, it did acknowledge the falsity of it. And the lawyers that I talked to from Dominion last night pointed to that and say, look, that's really important. That's part of the record. And the court has found that, and Fox has acknowledged that.

The second thing is the size of the settlement - $787 million - just a skosh under half of the $1.6 billion Dominion had been publicly seeking for this - is so large that that's part of an apology. And the very fact that that figure was disclosed publicly - often in such settlements, those figures are not disclosed - the facts that Fox had to agree for that to be disclosed publicly meant that Dominion can always point to that and say, you know, people like Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, at the top of that corporate empire, sure aren't giving more than three-quarters of a billion dollars away out of charity. That's an admission of wrongdoing right there.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned no acknowledgment on the air. Did Fox News mention it at all as part of the news?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, it reported it very briefly, sort of in a spartan way. It did acknowledge it on some of its news shows. Its chief media host and correspondent Howard Kurtz did appear. But, you know, in its 6 p.m. political newscast, he said he hadn't been able to confirm the figure that had been announced just outside the courthouse by a phalanx of attorneys for Dominion Voting Systems - about the only reporter in America who could not do so.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, this case really offered the public a rare look at the inner workings of Fox News, but the outlet is kind of entangled in other litigation as well. Where do they stand on their other lawsuits?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, there's a bunch of others. There was a producer - chief booker - for Tucker Carlson's primetime show. She sued Fox, saying, among other things, they had pressured her to mislead the court and Dominion in her testimony here. She was promptly fired. Smartmatic has a $2.7 billion lawsuit teed up against Fox. It was actually filed before Dominion. That's another voting-tech company that was similarly essentially described in clearly false and defamatory ways. It was involved only in Los Angeles County in the 2020 elections. Hard to believe it committed any voter fraud. And certainly, there'll be shareholder lawsuits as well that ensue when you see leadership of Fox involved in sort of getting them into this kind of trouble.

MARTÍNEZ: David, what do you think's the larger significance of this case and its resolution?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, had this gone forward, it would have been the most important defamation trial in many, many decades. But I think the very nature of this suit tells us a lot about Fox - how it reacted in crisis, the degree in which there was cynicism here and, also, that there are limits on what you can say. Even with America's incredibly stringent protections for freedom of speech, there are limits to what the media can say and do in ways that are false and defamatory and hurtful. And Fox just bumped up against it.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's David Folkenflik in Wilmington, Del.

David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.