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Fox News averts major defamation trial by settling with Dominion Voting Systems

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Fox News has averted what was looking like it would be a defamation trial for the ages. The network settled with Dominion Voting Systems just before lawyers were to give their opening statements. The voting technology company had sued Fox over the baseless claims that it broadcast regarding the 2020 presidential election. The network will now pay nearly $790 million to Dominion.

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now from Wilmington, Del., where all of this is playing out. David, $790 million - how big of a deal is that for Fox?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, let's put this in perspective. That's a huge amount - the largest settlement Fox has ever reached or the Murdoch family has ever reached for a single allegation. But we got to put it in the context of - they have a lot of money.

DETROW: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: You know, Fox News is the most important property that they own, and it throws off billions of dollars a year, not just in revenues, but in profits. So they're going to be able to pay this out.

I think the figure is really interesting. I looked at the number - 700 and - I think - $87.5 million. That's just $12.5 million less than 800 million. Why does that figure matter? Well, that would be half of the $1.6 billion that Dominion was seeking in damages for defamation of its good name. So Fox can probably say - you know, quietly, as it says - well, it's a lot of money, but it's less than half of what was being asked for us.

Still, in all, for any company - any Fortune 500 company - still a huge amount of money to agree to give away.

DETROW: Yeah. Yeah. So Dominion Voting Systems' CEO John Poulos spoke outside the courtroom right after the case was resolved. Here's a little bit of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN POULOS: Fox has admitted to telling lies about Dominion that caused enormous damage to my company, our employees and the customers that we serve.

DETROW: He also said that the company was seeking accountability. What was he referring to there?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think part of it is that Fox, here, put out a statement, you know, that it - false claims had been made about the elections, about the idea of fraud in the 2020 elections and about Dominion being at the heart of them. You didn't hear an apology there, actually, but Dominion would say, look, there was an acknowledgement of false claims being made and also that the public disclosure of the magnitude of this settlement is a kind of apology as well. It's certainly an acknowledgement of wrongdoing.

DETROW: And real quick, we had talked before about the possibility of an on-air apology being part of this. Any word on whether that's part of this settlement yet?

FOLKENFLIK: No, but I think we're going to see what transpires. Certainly, Fox will be - you know, be required to report upon this...

DETROW: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: ...In probably as stark and as austere a way possible, but we just don't know. It certainly hasn't been disclosed in any of the details. I think we would know if there had been an apology. I think this is it.

DETROW: Yeah. And so what has Fox said publicly about the settlement today?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, beyond acknowledging - and this is the precise claim - that the court's rulings - acknowledging the court's rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false - note the passivity there, not acknowledging Fox was the one that broadcast them - they say, look, they're glad to avoid what would have been a divisive trial and that this is an opportunity for the nation to move on from these matters. And certainly, you know, the question of the 2020 race has loomed large. They're, I guess, signaling that they're not going to dwell on that in their broadcasts to come.

DETROW: We got about 30 seconds. Can you remind us what was at stake here and why this settlement is such a big deal for Fox?

FOLKENFLIK: It's a big deal for Fox because they're being held accountable - not just in a sense for these false claims being made about the 2020 elections and fraud, the false claims that Donald Trump was being cheated in the election in 2020, but, more broadly, the idea that even a place as powerful as Fox News - that walks with a swagger, that has such political sway and influence - can be held accountable, called to account for allowing others to peddle lie (ph) on their broadcasts and actually embracing those lies and so doing to attract viewers.

DETROW: NPR's David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

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

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.