April 19, 2023

The Media Trial of the Century ended before it really even got started.

As media observers and consumers settled in for what we thought was going to be a six-week trial full of explosive testimony, eye-popping revelations and a breathtaking verdict, we instead are left with what to make of Tuesday’s news of an anticlimactic settlement.

Dominion Voting Systems was suing Fox News for $1.6 billion, claiming the network had aired guests who put forth unproven lies that Dominion’s voting machines flipped the election from Donald Trump to Joe Biden and that Fox News knew the claims were not true. In addition, Dominion alleged some Fox News hosts seemingly endorsed the lies and executives allowed it all to happen to placate viewers.

In the end, the two parties reached a settlement, with Fox News agreeing to pay Dominion $787.5 million. Perhaps just as importantly, Dominion made its point: Fox News lied.

Those who were rooting hard against Fox News were likely disappointed with Tuesday’s settlement.

Critics of Fox News wanted their pound of flesh. They wanted to see Fox News pay for its lies, and not just by writing a check. They wanted to see the network embarrassed and humbled. They wanted to see hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo look into the camera and grovel by saying, “We lied to you. The 2020 election was not rigged. Dominion did not switch votes. The election was fair and square. I’m sorry. Please forgive us.”

But that won’t happen. The settlement does not include Fox News offering any on-air apologies.

Margaret Sullivan, the former Washington Post media columnist who now writes columns for Guardian US, tweeted, “Dominion should have insisted on an apology, including prominently on air.” She added, “It would have been in the public interest.”

Veteran media reporter Brian Stelter tweeted, “You could argue that Dominion wins but the public loses.”

Most legal experts following this case said Dominion had one of the best cases they had ever seen. If so, why settle? Why not let it go to a jury?

As is often the case in any business, the answer can be found in one word: money. Make no mistake, $787.5 million is staggering. The Washington Post reported it is “the largest publicly disclosed monetary settlement ever in an American defamation action.”

Elie Honig, former assistant U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, told CNN, “Translated it means ‘we got caught lying by the judge’ — and I think that’s exactly why we are seeing this absolutely jaw-dropping number.”

It’s about half of what Dominion was asking for in the trial. But Honig said, “I didn’t think there was any way they would get $1.6 billion — even when they proved their case, even if they proved it overwhelmingly to a jury. Let’s remember, by its own estimation, Dominion valued the entire company at somewhere between $30 and $80 million. This settlement is 10 times the value of Dominion as an entire company. That’s how strong a statement this is with this number.”

So what now?

Well, in terms of airtime, it’s back to business as usual for Fox News. The network has given bare-bones coverage of the trial and isn’t likely to bring it up moving forward.

But its legal issues are not over. Another voting systems company, Smartmatic, has filed a $2.7 billion lawsuit against Fox News.

In a statement, Smartmatic attorney J. Erik Connolly said, “Dominion’s litigation exposed some of the misconduct and damage caused by Fox’s disinformation campaign. Smartmatic will expose the rest. Smartmatic remains committed to clearing its name, recouping the significant damage done to the company, and holding Fox accountable for undermining democracy.”

And while Fox News might want to write its checks and bury this whole ordeal in an unmarked grave in the middle of nowhere to never be seen again, it will long be remembered. In the end, Fox News cannot avoid something that should be devastating to any outlet claiming to be a legitimate news organization with journalism ethics: It lied to its audience and knew so while it was doing it. And not just on one occasion. And it wasn’t just a rogue employee. It included the founder of the company, the network’s top executives and some of its most popular and recognizable personalities.

Frankly, Fox News should be humiliated.

Justin Nelson, a lawyer for Dominion, told the media outside the Wilmington, Delaware, courtroom, “The truth matters. Lies have consequences. Over two years ago, a torrent of lies swept Dominion election officials across America into an alternative universe of conspiracy theories causing grievous harm to Dominion and the country.”

Dominion CEO John Poulos told reporters, “Fox has admitted to telling lies about Dominion that caused enormous damage to my company, our employees and the customers that we serve.”

Fox didn’t give the full-throated apology that many wanted, but the network did acknowledge it lied. In a statement after the settlement, Fox News said, “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.”

Meanwhile, Dominion isn’t done yet either. Dominion attorney Stephen Shackelford told reporters, “Money is accountability, and we got that today from Fox, but we’re not done yet. We’ve got some other people who have some accountability coming toward them. And we’ll move right on to the next one.”

Other tidbits and links and news from the Dominion-Fox News settlement

  • Appearing on CNN on Tuesday night, Dominion lead counsel Justin Nelson addressed why an on-air apology from Fox News wasn’t a part of the settlement. He said, “Our goals were accountability, No. 1, and trying to have some semblance of a whole for Dominion as a company, to have some remuneration for the reputational hit that it has suffered and continues to suffer as a result of these lies. And those have been our goals all along. And today’s settlement achieved that. And we could have gone all the way through trial and obtained some unknown judgment. But what we achieved today was certainty. What we achieved today was again nearly $800 million in the settlement number. And we achieved the admission of — from Fox that it was the acknowledgment that the court, in fact, was correct in calling these lies.”
  • What does $787.5 million mean to Fox News? The Associated Press’ David Bauder, Randall Chase and Geoff Mulvihill wrote, “It represents about one-quarter of the $2.96 billion the company reported earning last year before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization — a figure often used to approximate a company’s cash flow.”
  • The New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg and Katie Robertson with “A $787.5 Million Settlement and Embarrassing Disclosures: The Costs of Airing a Lie.” They wrote, “The one question that only time will answer is whether the settlement was enough to cause Fox News to change the way it handles such incendiary and defamatory conspiracy content. The amount is huge — $787.5 million. Fox News certainly doesn’t want to see a similar settlement anytime soon as other legal cases loom, notably a $2.7 billion suit from another election technology company, Smartmatic. But Fox did manage to escape Dominion’s goal of an on-air admission or apology, meaning it did not have to force either on its audience, which did not hear much about the case on Fox’s shows to begin with.”
  • The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake with “4 takeaways from the Dominion v. Fox settlement.”
  • The Atlantic’s David A. Graham with “Fox News Lost the Lawsuit but Won the War.” Graham wrote, “Dominion’s choice to settle comes as a great disappointment to many critics of Fox, and is also probably a smart financial decision. For the critics, this case was about democracy and disinformation and provided an opportunity to hold Fox accountable for years of broadcasting hogwash. For Dominion, it was primarily about business. No matter how lofty the language its spokespeople used, the company didn’t sue to fix the American media landscape.”
  • Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson did not mention the news on his show Tuesday night.
  • Former Fox News prime-time host Bill O’Reilly wrote, “This is what happens when money becomes more important than honest information. Since I left FNC, the template changed from ‘Fair and Balanced’ to ‘tell the audience what it wants to hear.’ And millions of Trump voters, to this day, want to believe the 2020 election was rigged. That opinion can certainly be presented if you provide a counter opinion — equal time. However, once the facts begin to overwhelm any point of view, a news agency has an obligation to say that.”
  • CNN’s Jake Tapper, on air, said, this was “one of the ugliest and most embarrassing moments in the history of journalism.” As he read Fox News’ statement, he added, “I’m sorry, this is going to be difficult to say with a straight face.” He then paused and laughed while reading it.
  • And here is Anderson Cooper’s breakdown on CNN. He said that “Fox blinked.”

The ratings game

(AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura, File)

Despite the negative press that Fox News has had in the weeks and months headed into this trial, its ratings have been just fine. Better than fine, in fact.

As The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum reported, “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.”

And even though Fox News’ ratings decreased slightly in March, the network’s average viewership still was better than MSNBC and CNN combined.

There are two big questions when it comes to Fox News viewers and this case. One, are its regular viewers even paying attention or getting all the information on this lawsuit? As I already mentioned, Fox News itself has barely covered this case. And, two, do hardcore Fox News viewers even care about how this all turned out, that Fox News admitted it lied?

While this case is specifically about false things said on Fox News’ airways about Dominion, many casual observers think the trial was just general thoughts about the 2020 election being rigged. Polls have shown that Republicans who watch Fox News are more likely to believe that Biden’s election was illegitimate than Republicans who don’t watch Fox News.

Other media news …

There was media news Tuesday outside the Fox News-Dominion story. Let’s continue with items from two of my Poynter colleagues. First, Annie Aguiar, Poynter’s audience engagement producer, with news from Oklahoma.

A shocking conversation

A jaw-dropper of a headline in a small Oklahoma newspaper this week has shocked residents, officials and press freedom watchers across the country: “County officials discuss killing, burying Gazette reporters.”

“On March 6 at a county commissioners’ meeting, sheriff’s officers and commissioners discussed beating, killing and burying Gazette reporters Chris Willingham and Bruce Willingham,” opens the story in the McCurtain Gazette-News, the first of a series into McCurtain County commissioners’ private meetings conducted after the public had left, a violation of the state’s open meeting law.

In the released audio of the off-the-books meeting, commissioners appear to reference “two deep holes” and discuss knowing hitmen. At one point, they say that if anything “happened to Chris Willingham, they would likely be blamed.”

Officials also appear to complain of no longer being able to use racist law enforcement practices from “back in the day,” referencing a location for lynchings as well as a former sheriff beating a Black man before putting him in a cell.

Another section has the commissioners making light of a woman’s death in a fire, comparing the recovery of her body to barbecue.

The McCurtain County community, the mayor of the city of Idabel and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stint are calling for the resignation of the officials who appear in the recording.

Bruce Willingham, who is Chris Willingham’s father and the longtime publisher of the paper, attended the public portion of the March 6 county commissioners’ meeting. Suspecting there were private meetings happening, he left a voice-activated recorder in the room to capture the off-the-books discussion.

Though Oklahoma law requires all parties consent to recording conversations, the Gazette-News contends the recording is legal since it was of a public meeting and in a public building.

“I talked on two different occasions to our attorneys to make sure I wasn’t doing anything illegal,” Bruce Willingham told The Associated Press.

The Gazette-News published the story with a public document that points to audio snippets and transcriptions of the off-the-books meeting so readers could listen for themselves. The audio is the first of three the newspaper plans to release as the series unfolds, but the paper provided the full audio to the FBI and the Oklahoma attorney general’s office for investigation.

In a Facebook post, the McCurtain County sheriff’s office claimed its preliminary investigation indicated the audio has been altered. In the same post, the sheriff’s office said there is an “ongoing investigation into multiple significant violations of the Oklahoma Security of Communications Act,” alluding to potential felony charges for the Willinghams.

The rift between McCurtain County officials and the Willinghams is long-running. Chris Willingham has written numerous articles alleging corruption at the McCurtain County sheriff’s office in recent years, KJRH-TV reports.

30 journalists finish a slain Colombian reporter’s work

For this item, I turned it over to my Poynter colleague Amaris Castillo.

More than two dozen journalists from multiple media outlets have continued the work of Rafael Moreno, a Colombian investigative journalist who was assassinated on Oct. 16, 2022, over his relentless reporting on corruption and other matters in the region of Córdoba.

The 30 journalists’ effort was coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit devoted to pursuing the work of journalists around the world who are threatened, jailed or killed.

“Through our analysis of documents Moreno left behind, as well as other public contracts obtained through freedom of information requests in the municipalities Moreno reported on, ground reporting and interviews with dozens of sources, our consortium can reveal a massive system of cronyism in the province of Córdoba and the probable embezzlement of up to several million dollars across five municipalities — a vast scheme Moreno had spent his career trying to take down and may have paid for with his life,” the report read.

During a Facebook Live last July, Moreno defied his detractors and predicted his own demise, according to the Forbidden Stories article. Dressed in a white polo shirt with the name of his online news outlet — Voces de Córdoba — he said forcefully in Spanish, “If you have to kill me, kill me. But I am telling you to your face: you won’t silence me.”

Before his killing, Moreno had been in contact with Forbidden Stories. Laurent Richard, executive director and founder of the collaborative journalism network, told Poynter that Moreno was very concerned about some threats he’d received.

“And this is how he decided, at some point, to share with us what he was investigating, and his main leads,” Richard said. He added that Moreno had conversations with his team on how to secure his information through the Safebox Network, which allows threatened journalists to upload and protect sensitive information. Should something happen to a journalist under threat, it allows Forbidden Stories to pursue their work.

Richard said that when Moreno was alive, the Colombian journalist covered corruption, money laundering, embezzlement and environmental crimes. Forbidden Stories reported that Moreno’s Voces de Córdoba, launched in 2018, spared no one, including local politicians, mining companies and paramilitary groups.

“He was investigating very important topics and issues for the general interest, so our goal was to make sure that we can continue his work and we can publish the information that Rafael’s killers wanted to silence,” Richard said. “And to tell them, as well, that killing the journalist won’t kill the story.”

Richard suggested it could even be worse for the subjects because the story is now published in the United States, Europe, the Philippines and many countries in Africa and South America. Moreno’s assassin is still at large as of the publication of this story.

Read the full investigation here.

Evan Gershkovich update

Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich stands in a glass cage in a courtroom in Moscow on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Disappointing but not surprising news from Russia. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who is being detained in Russia on charges of espionage, declared his innocence on Tuesday, but a Russian judge denied his appeal to have his detention lifted while awaiting trial. The New York Times’ Ivan Nechepurenko and Anton Troianovski wrote, “He was ordered back to Moscow’s Lefortovo prison, one of the most infamous detention centers in Russia, where inmates are held in isolation with only rare visits by lawyers.”

The Wall Street Journal and the U.S. government have vehemently denied that Gershkovich is a spy, and the U.S. has labeled him “wrongfully detained.” Russia has yet to present evidence of its allegations.

There was video of Gershkovich in court on Tuesday. It’s the first time he has been seen in public since March 30.

Almar Latour, CEO of Dow Jones and publisher of The Wall Street Journal, and Emma Tucker, the Journal editor-in-chief, put out a statement Tuesday that said, in part, “Evan is wrongfully detained and the charges of espionage against him are false. We demand his immediate release and are doing everything in our power to secure it.”

An investigation and trial could take up to 18 months and, if convicted, Gershkovich faces up to 20 years in prison.

The Journal’s Ann M. Simmons has more details.

Media tidbits

  • Jim Trotter is the veteran NFL reporter who was often critical of the league, especially its lack of diversity in management positions. He was laid off by the NFL last month. It didn’t take long for him to land on his feet. He has been hired by The Athletic as a national columnist, covering the NFL and other sports and topics. The New York Times, which owns The Athletic, made the announcement.
  • Former Republican Congresswoman Liz Cheney, who ran afoul of many of her constituents and her party for her leading role in the House committee hearing on Jan. 6, is coming out with a memoir. “Oath and Honor: A Warning and a Memoir” is scheduled to be released on Nov. 14. The book is expected to go into the details of the insurrection and Cheney’s role in standing up against Donald Trump and his supporters.
  • For Poynter, Nicholas Esposito with “I dreamt of working at ESPN. Now I’m an award-winning hyperlocal news director.”

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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