At the very last second, just as the trial was about to begin, Fox agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787.5 million and to admit that Fox News had lied. The NY Times reported the settlement is “one of the largest ever in a defamation case.” One of the largest? I decided to try to find larger settlements. In October, 2022 professional far right liar Alex Jones was ordered to pay $1.487 billion in several cases involving the 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. As far as I can tell, that’s the biggest settlement.
Another massive settlement made a MAGAt rich, but no one knows how rich. Nicholas Sandmann settled several cases against media companies he claimed defamed him over their coverage of his encounter with a Native American protester, Nathan Phillips, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 2019. Sandmann had sued the Washington Post for $250 million, claiming that the page had “targeted and bullied” him in its coverage of the incident. In total, Sandmann's defamation lawsuits sought $800 million in damages from CNN, the Washington Post, the NY Times and NBC.
I looked up Sandmann’s net worth worth and it was between $1 and 2 million, so I’m guessing the settlements weren’t in the $800 million range. He graduated high school and is now a student at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky and from what I was able to discern online, most of his net worth comes not from big settlements with media companies but from his social media presence with sponsorship deals from companies such as Nike, Red Bull and Netflix and from selling the movie rights to his little adventure.
Meanwhile the Fox settlement spares the network “a trial that would have gone on for weeks and put many of the company’s most prominent figures— from the media mogul Rupert Murdoch to hosts like Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo— on the stand. The case held the potential to make public a stream of damaging information about how the network told its audience a story of fraud and interference in the 2020 presidential election that many of its own executives and on-screen personalities did not believe. And the network was not forced to apologize— a concession that Dominion lawyers had sought, lawyers involved in the case said… While Dominion’s suit asked for damages of $1.6 billion, almost double the settlement figure, the company will avoid many years of appeals that could have trimmed or eliminated any payout from a trial.”
The size of the settlement, experts said, seems to have little precedent. RonNell Andersen Jones, a professor of law at the S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah, said she believed it was one of the largest settlements in a defamation case ever.
“This was unquestionably the strongest defamation case we’ve ever seen against a major media company,” Andersen Jones said. The case was even more unusual, she added, because media companies typically seek to settle well before so much damaging information about their internal workings is released.
A deal came together at the last possible minute, after months of almost no serious discussion between the two sides. As the case proceeded, Dominion divulged extraordinary details about the doubts that Fox employees expressed privately about voter fraud claims, even as they struck a different tone on the air.
“Settlement before this trove of evidence became public would of course have been in Fox’s best interest,” Andersen Jones said. “Waiting until the eve of trial, when the whole nation had a chance to focus on what Fox said internally about Trump, its sources and its own viewers, gave Dominion the extra layer of accountability it was seeking.”
It is uncommon for defamation suits to get to trial, in part because the bar for proving “actual malice”— the legal standard that requires plaintiffs to show that defendants knew what they were saying was a lie, or had a reckless disregard for the truth— is so high. It is rarer yet for one to feature the volume of evidence that Dominion had amassed against Fox.
In the run-up to trial, Dominion publicly released reams of internal communications among Fox executives, hosts and producers that revealed how the country’s most-watched cable news network set in motion a strategy to win back viewers who had tuned out after Trump’s loss. The messages tell the story of a frantic scramble inside Fox as it started losing audience share to competitors, like Newsmax, that were more willing to report on and endorse false claims about a plot involving Dominion machines to steal the election from Trump.
Producers referred to pro-Trump guests like Sidney Powell and Rudolph Giuliani as “gold” for ratings and acknowledged that the audience didn’t want to hear about subjects like the possibility of a peaceful transition from a Trump administration to a Biden administration.
Those communications have shown how employees at Fox expressed serious doubts about and, at times, were scornful of Trump and his allies as they spread lies about voter fraud, questioning the legitimacy of Biden’s election. Some at Fox mocked Trump and his lawyers as “crazy” and under the influence of drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms.
Some Fox hosts privately described their colleagues as “reckless” for endorsing Trump’s false claims, acknowledging that there was “no evidence” to back them up. Yet for weeks, Fox continued to give a platform to election deniers, despite doubts about their credibility. Dominion challenged statements made on multiple programs on multiple nights. Typically, defamation cases involve only a single disputed statement.
The trial would have been a spectacle. Murdoch, whose family controls the Fox media empire, was slated to be one of Dominion’s first witnesses this week. Star anchors including Sean Hannity, Carlson and Bartiromo were likely to be called at other points.
Even the most blockbuster media trials of the last generation— Ariel Sharon’s suit against Time and Gen. William Westmoreland’s against CBS, both in the 1980s— lacked the most explosive elements of this case, which raised weighty questions about the protections the First Amendment affords the media and whether one of the most influential forces in conservative politics would have to pay a price for amplifying misinformation.
Both of those cases were settled out of court, too.
In recent days, Fox raised questions about Dominion’s claims of damages. On Monday, it disputed Dominion’s worth, pointing to a recent legal filing in which the company lowered part of its request for compensation. Fox lawyers also raised doubts about the harm that Dominion had suffered, saying the company acknowledged that it had turned a profit in recent years.
But the potential pitfalls for proceeding with a trial were real for Fox. Some of the revelations from the depositions that Dominion had conducted offered a preview of how damaging a trial could be. Murdoch acknowledged during his deposition that some Fox hosts had “endorsed” Trump’s lies, an admission that undercut Fox’s defense that it was merely reporting on— not amplifyin— the former president’s claims.
Fox is also being sued by Smartmatic (for $2.7 billion), Abby Grossberg, a former Fox producer, Crikey News, a small Australian website, and Fox shareholders over the 2020 election lies. And Dominion is also suing neo-Nazi media firms Newsmax and OAN for spreading the same lies Fox had.