Katie RobertsonJeremy W. Peters

April 18, 2023, 3:58 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 3:58 p.m. ET

The judge in the Fox News defamation case said on Tuesday that the case was resolved, abruptly ending a long-running dispute over misinformation in the 2020 election just as a highly anticipated trial was about to begin.

It was a last-minute end to a case that began two years ago and after the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that peeled back the curtain on a media company that has long resisted outside scrutiny.

Details of the settlement were not yet known.

The agreement was reached a few hours after a jury in Wilmington, Del., was selected on Tuesday, just as opening statements were expected to begin. Lawyers for both sides had been preparing to make their cases to the jury, their microphones clipped to their jacket lapels.

The sudden settlement means no high-profile Fox figures — including those who privately expressed concerns about the veracity of claims being made on its shows — will have to testify. The expected witness list had included Fox executives, including Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox Corporation, and the hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo.

It was the latest extraordinary twist in a case that had promised to be one of the most consequential against a media organization in a generation.

The trial had been expected to be a major test of the First Amendment, raising questions about whether defamation law adequately protects victims of misinformation campaigns. Dominion had sought $1.6 billion in damages.

While the settlement avoids a lengthy trial, it still results in a rare instance of accountability for attempts to delegitimize President Biden’s victory. Few people or organizations have faced legal ramifications for claims related to electoral fraud that were brought by former President Donald J. Trump or his supporters.

Dominion sued Fox in early 2021, arguing that its reputation was badly damaged when Fox repeatedly aired falsehoods about its voting machines. Fox denied wrongdoing, saying that it had merely reported on newsworthy allegations that were coming from Mr. Trump and his lawyers and that it was protected in doing so by the First Amendment.

Judge Eric M. Davis had previously ruled that statements Fox had aired about Dominion were false, and functionally limited some of its potential defenses by deciding that its lawyers could not argue that it broadcast false information on the basis that the allegations were newsworthy.

At trial, a jury would have been tasked with answering the question of whether Fox had acted with “actual malice” — a legal standard meaning it had knowingly broadcast lies or had recklessly disregarded obvious evidence that the statements were untrue.

Katie RobertsonJeremy W. Peters

April 18, 2023, 3:58 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 3:58 p.m. ET

The judge in the Fox News defamation case said on Tuesday that the case was resolved, abruptly ending a long-running dispute over misinformation in the 2020 election just as a highly anticipated trial was about to begin.

It was a last-minute end to a case that began two years ago and after the disclosure of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents that peeled back the curtain on a media company that has long resisted outside scrutiny.

Details of the settlement were not yet known.

The agreement was reached a few hours after a jury in Wilmington, Del., was selected on Tuesday, just as opening statements were expected to begin. Lawyers for both sides had been preparing to make their cases to the jury, their microphones clipped to their jacket lapels.

The sudden settlement means no high-profile Fox figures — including those who privately expressed concerns about the veracity of claims being made on its shows — will have to testify. The expected witness list had included Fox executives, including Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of Fox Corporation, and the hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo.

It was the latest extraordinary twist in a case that had promised to be one of the most consequential against a media organization in a generation.

The trial had been expected to be a major test of the First Amendment, raising questions about whether defamation law adequately protects victims of misinformation campaigns. Dominion had sought $1.6 billion in damages.

While the settlement avoids a lengthy trial, it still results in a rare instance of accountability for attempts to delegitimize President Biden’s victory. Few people or organizations have faced legal ramifications for claims related to electoral fraud that were brought by former President Donald J. Trump or his supporters.

Dominion sued Fox in early 2021, arguing that its reputation was badly damaged when Fox repeatedly aired falsehoods about its voting machines. Fox denied wrongdoing, saying that it had merely reported on newsworthy allegations that were coming from Mr. Trump and his lawyers and that it was protected in doing so by the First Amendment.

Judge Eric M. Davis had previously ruled that statements Fox had aired about Dominion were false, and functionally limited some of its potential defenses by deciding that its lawyers could not argue that it broadcast false information on the basis that the allegations were newsworthy.

At trial, a jury would have been tasked with answering the question of whether Fox had acted with “actual malice” — a legal standard meaning it had knowingly broadcast lies or had recklessly disregarded obvious evidence that the statements were untrue.

Jeremy W. Peters

April 18, 2023, 4:08 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 4:08 p.m. ET

Jeremy W. Peters

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Fox Corp. just released a statement: “We are pleased to have reached a settlement of our dispute with Dominion Voting Systems. We acknowledge the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false. This settlement reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards. We are hopeful that our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion amicably, instead of the acrimony of a divisive trial, allows the country to move forward from these issues.”

Michael Grynbaum

April 18, 2023, 4:06 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 4:06 p.m. ET

Michael Grynbaum

Media reporter

Judge Davis did not say anything about the terms of the settlement. But among the consequences: the public will not see Rupert Murdoch testify in open court. Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Maria Bartiromo and other potential witnesses also will not appear.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 4:02 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 4:02 p.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Judge Davis commended the work and professionalism of the legal teams for both sides. “I would be proud to be your judge in the future,” he said.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 4:01 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 4:01 p.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

The judge has dismissed the jury, after thanking them for their service

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 3:58 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 3:58 p.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Judge Davis tells the court: “The parties have resolved the case.” Fox and Dominion have settled.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 3:55 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 3:55 p.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Judge Davis has finally reappeared in the courtroom and the jury is entering, after a delay of about 2.5 hours.

Jim Rutenberg

April 18, 2023, 3:38 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 3:38 p.m. ET

Jim Rutenberg

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

The scene in the courtroom: It is sweltering, everyone is up from their seats, going in and out of the room. Fox’s lead lawyer, Dan Webb, has taken several phone calls. Some people are standing, all are talking, others gesticulating. It’s relative anarchy for Judge Davis’s court.

Jim Rutenberg

April 18, 2023, 3:15 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 3:15 p.m. ET

Jim Rutenberg

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Suffice to say, per the legal experts in the room, this delay is a highly unusual development just minutes before opening statements were set to begin.

Jim Rutenberg

April 18, 2023, 3:11 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 3:11 p.m. ET

Jim Rutenberg

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

The courtroom is packed and sweltering and welling with anticipation as no word comes about why there is a delay.

Jeremy W. Peters

April 18, 2023, 3:10 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 3:10 p.m. ET

Jeremy W. Peters

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

It seems very unusual to have a delay in the proceedings this long. The jury was scheduled to come back in at 1:30. More than an hour and a half later, no sign of the judge or the jury. Only lawyers, media and public in the courtroom.

Jeremy W. Peters

April 18, 2023, 3:02 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 3:02 p.m. ET

Jeremy W. Peters

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Two of the lead lawyers from each side, Justin Nelson and Dan Webb, briefly left the courtroom and walked toward the judge’s chambers. They just returned.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 2:44 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 2:44 p.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

While we wait, a ruling from the judge has come through from earlier today: He has authorized a special master to investigate Fox relating to its handling of discovery, an issue he had raised at an earlier hearing.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 2:25 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 2:25 p.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

It’s unclear why the opening statements have been delayed. The court was given a short break, and lawyers and reporters are milling around the room, waiting for the proceedings to resume.

Ken Bensinger

April 18, 2023, 1:59 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 1:59 p.m. ET

Ken Bensinger

Politics reporter

Lawyers for Dominion will be first up, and the company is represented by two firms. One is Susman Godfrey, a boutique litigation shop that has scored huge wins against big corporations, including a $182 million verdict against a lead paint manufacturer.

Ken Bensinger

April 18, 2023, 2:00 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 2:00 p.m. ET

Ken Bensinger

Politics reporter

The other, Clare Locke, specializes in defamation cases. Among its past clients are Sarah Palin, who sued The New York Times and lost at trial last year, and the University of Virginia, which sued Rolling Stone magazine over an article about fraternity culture and won a $3 million verdict.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 1:53 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 1:53 p.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

And now we wait. Patiently, of course. Judge Davis appears to be talking with the jurors in another room, while everyone else is seated in court.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 1:42 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 1:42 p.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

A reminder of what it’s taken to bring this case to trial: Two years of litigation, millions of dollars in legal fees, and hundreds of thousands of documents turned over in discovery.

Jim Rutenberg

April 18, 2023, 1:26 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 1:26 p.m. ET

Jim Rutenberg

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Lawyers and spectators are filing back into court for what will finally be the true start of Dominion v. Fox. Dominion will give its opening statement first, followed by Fox News. That should cover the rest of the day — meaning no witness testimony — but nothing is ever set in stone in this case.

Image

Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Michael M. Grynbaum

April 18, 2023, 1:17 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 1:17 p.m. ET

Image

Credit…John Taggart for The New York Times

The damning revelations from the defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems has spurred widespread criticism of Fox News. But they have had little effect on the network’s popularity.

In February, as Fox News faced harsh headlines from the Dominion case, its total audience grew 7 percent from the month prior, according to Nielsen. Its viewership in prime time, the most lucrative part of the broadcast day, rose 25 percent among adults between the ages of 25 and 54, the most relevant demographic for advertisers.

Fox News’s total audience did dip in March, but only slightly. The network easily outperformed its main competitors: On average, more Americans watched Fox News last month than CNN and MSNBC combined.

“Tucker Carlson Tonight” was the network’s most-watched show in March, beating the afternoon chat show “The Five” for the first time in nearly a year. Mr. Carlson’s private criticism of former President Donald J. Trump, which he shared in messages among Fox News colleagues, was among the most talked-about discoveries of the Dominion documents.

It is difficult to say how many Fox News viewers were made aware of the Dominion revelations. The network’s media analyst, Howard Kurtz, complained at one point that Fox News management had prohibited him from discussing the defamation suit on the air. He was eventually permitted to discuss the case on the air, and was spotted in the Wilmington courtroom on Tuesday; he will be covering the trial for Fox News for its duration.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 12:37 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 12:37 p.m. ET

Image

Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

Dominion Voting Systems’ high-profile lawsuit against Fox News is by far the most closely watched defamation case involving a media organization in decades.

In the middle of that media spectacle, the presiding judge, Judge Eric M. Davis of Delaware Superior Court, is facing his own test of his abilities. His every move is already being scrutinized for its potential impact on the trial’s outcome, and already he has made some important decisions that have shaped the parameters of the case.

A series of recent pretrial rulings has provided more clarity on how Judge Davis operates, and shows he has taken steps to reassure both parties that he had not predetermined the outcomes.

So far, legal analysts say, he has been evenhanded and reasonable, even while he has excoriated Fox’s lawyers for withholding evidence. At times, he expressed skepticism about the network’s defense against allegations that it knowingly broadcast false claims of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

Judge Davis, 61, has shown that he is “comprehensive, clear and direct,” important qualities in such a prominent case, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“Davis seems to refrain from inserting himself into disputes, so that cases are about the merits and the litigants rather than the judge,” Mr. Tobias said. “Perhaps most important, Davis displays measured judicial temperament, which is essential when the stakes are huge and emotions run high.”

A judge since 2010, Judge Davis has spent the past decade on the Superior Court, overseeing cases as diverse as that of a neurosurgeon who molested his patients, a cold-case murder and a dispute over whether insurers should have to pay for fraud by a former chief executive of the Dole food empire. Cases currently on his docket include personal injury claims and mortgage mediation.

In the Fox-Dominion trial, Judge Davis will be overseeing a case that could prove a critical gauge of free speech protections in an age of politicized misinformation.

Jeremy W. Peters

April 18, 2023, 12:29 p.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 12:29 p.m. ET

Jeremy W. Peters

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Lawyers for both sides are expected to speak for an hour or more during opening statements, which would leave little time today for anything else. It’s likely that we won’t hear from any witnesses until tomorrow.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 11:57 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:57 a.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

The court is breaking for lunch and will be back around 1:30 or so.

Michael Grynbaum

April 18, 2023, 11:56 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:56 a.m. ET

Michael Grynbaum

Media reporter

Judge Davis tells the jury: “If there is publicity about this trial, you must ignore it.” Perhaps one of the more challenging instructions for jurors in this particular case, which could take six weeks to finish.

Ken Bensinger

April 18, 2023, 11:48 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:48 a.m. ET

Ken Bensinger

Politics reporter

As Judge Davis begins giving the jury its initial instructions, one of two outside telephone lines transmitting audio of the trial for the media and public has hit capacity and will not allow further listeners.

Michael Grynbaum

April 18, 2023, 11:44 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:44 a.m. ET

Michael Grynbaum

Media reporter

Hurry up … and wait. Opening statements will not commence until after the court and jury takes a break for lunch, Judge Davis says.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 11:39 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:39 a.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

The court is back in session. Judge Davis says he already had to kick someone out of the courtroom earlier today for taking photos, and said that he had been told people were tweeting from inside the room, which he again warned is not allowed.

Katie Robertson

April 18, 2023, 11:28 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:28 a.m. ET

Katie Robertson

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Judge Davis has instructed the jurors not to talk about the case among themselves or with any third party until final deliberations. “From this point forward until you retire for final deliberations in the jury room, you have to fight human nature,” he told them.

Jim Rutenberg

April 18, 2023, 11:27 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:27 a.m. ET

Jim Rutenberg

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

As we await the start of opening statements, lawyers from Fox made it clear they were wrangling with Dominion’s lawyers over what would be said, with Dominion lawyers posing many objections. The judge has told both sides that he will give them wide latitude in their openings. “I don’t want to micromanage,” he told them.

Jim Rutenberg

April 18, 2023, 11:25 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:25 a.m. ET

Jim Rutenberg

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

There’s been no shortage of drama in this case, and today is already no different. After the judge swore in the jury, one of the alternates raised his hand, stood up and said, “I can’t do this! I can’t do this!” He was dismissed and replaced in fairly short order.

Jim Rutenberg

April 18, 2023, 11:21 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:21 a.m. ET

Jim Rutenberg

Reporting from Wilmington, Del.

Packed courtroom here in Delaware, where Judge Eric M. Davis has sworn in the jury and warned the assembled media to follow his rules or get the hook — even asking reporters to type more lightly on their keys lest their racing fingers influence the jury at key moments.

Jeremy W. Peters

April 18, 2023, 11:17 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:17 a.m. ET

Image

Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

There is one reason that defamation trials like the one unfolding in Delaware between Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems are so rare: Defamation cases are very difficult for the people pursuing them to win, so they often give up or settle out of court.

That’s because the Constitution broadly protects the media when it comes to what they publish and broadcast. The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment as giving journalists considerable immunity when they make a mistake. Mistakes, the court has said, are an unfortunate but necessary cost of the free expression that democracies thrive on.

But intentional lies are not protected, and that’s the heart of Dominion’s case against Fox. Dominion will argue — using reams of evidence from Fox executives, hosts and producers — that people inside the network knew that claims about the hacking of Dominion machines were false but allowed them on the air anyway.

If jurors agree with that, they will be saying that they believe that Fox committed “actual malice.”

There are two ways that media organizations like Fox can be found to have committed actual malice: if they knew what they were broadcasting was false, or if they demonstrated a reckless disregard for the truth. So another way Dominion can prevail is if it can prove that people inside Fox acted so recklessly that they overlooked obvious evidence disproving their coverage.

But that still requires evidence that speaks to the state of mind of the people accused of defamation, and it can be extremely difficult to prove what someone knew or believed. As Judge Eric M. Davis, who is presiding over the trial, said in a pretrial hearing last week, “It’s protected by the First Amendment if you can’t demonstrate actual malice.”

April 18, 2023, 11:17 a.m. ET

April 18, 2023, 11:17 a.m. ET

Video

CreditCredit…

Messages sent among Fox News hosts that were released as part of the lawsuit against the network filed by Dominion Voting Systems provide a window into what they privately thought about claims of fraud being made after the 2020 presidential election.

Those private musings were often at odds with what the hosts said on their broadcasts.

Hosts including Tucker Carlson expressed grave doubts on the unfounded narrative about widespread voter fraud, which was promoted by then-President Donald J. Trump and a coalition of lawyers, lawmakers and influencers, though they produced no evidence to support their assertions.

Two days after the election, Mr. Carlson’s producer, Alex Pfeiffer, said that voices on the right were “reckless demagogues,” according to a text message. Mr. Carlson replied that his show was “not going to follow them.”

But the same day, on “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” Mr. Carlson expressed some doubts about the voter fraud assertions before insisting that at least some of the claims were “credible.”

On Nov. 7, 2020, Mr. Carlson privately told Mr. Pfeiffer that claims about manipulated software were “absurd.” Mr. Pfeiffer replied later that there was not enough evidence of fraud to swing the election. But during his broadcast on Nov. 9, Mr. Carlson devoted time to various theories, suggesting there could be merit to claims about software manipulation. “We don’t know, we have to find out,” he said.

Mr. Carlson and other hosts also privately criticized Sidney Powell, a lawyer and conspiracy theorist who was gaining traction among the far right for her involvement in several lawsuits aimed at challenging the election results. Mr. Carlson called her claims “shockingly reckless,” while Laura Ingraham, who is the host of a 10 p.m. show, and Raj Shah, a senior vice president at the Fox Corporation, the network’s corporate parent, were equally incredulous.

Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, two hosts on Fox Business, a sister channel to Fox News that is also part of Dominion’s lawsuit, repeatedly invited Ms. Powell onto their shows as an expert on voter fraud claims.

John Fawcett, a producer on Mr. Dobbs’s show, said he believed Ms. Powell was “doing LSD and cocaine and heroin and shrooms” in one message. But when Ms. Powell appeared on Mr. Dobbs’s show days later, she was hailed as a “great American” and “one of the country’s leading appellate attorneys.”

Mr. Fawcett also privately told Mr. Dobbs that Mr. Trump’s legal team had disavowed her. Mr. Dobbs replied that he didn’t know what Ms. Powell was “thinking or doing, Or why!”

But over the next several days, Ms. Powell was invited back on the show by Mr. Dobbs, who echoed her claims that “electoral fraud” was perpetrated by electronic voting machines, “prominently Dominion.”

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