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The trial over Fox News' false election fraud claims is settled at the last minute

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A two-year legal battle came to a conclusion Tuesday when Fox Corp., parent company of Fox News, settled with Dominion Voting Systems over Fox's false claims about the 2020 election. Dominion had initially sought $1.6 billion in damages, saying Fox had harmed its reputation by repeatedly airing false statements about Dominion's voting machines and technology. In preparation for the trial, Dominion found evidence that Fox knew its claims were false but aired them anyway. In the end, the two sides agreed that Fox will pay Dominion three-quarters of a billion dollars. In a statement, Fox acknowledged that, quote, "the court's rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false," unquote, and that the settlement, quote, "reflects Fox's continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards," unquote.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JUSTIN NELSON: The truth matters. Lies have consequences.

MARTIN: That was Justin Nelson, the co-lead counsel for Dominion, speaking after the settlement was announced. And he is with us this morning. Good morning.

NELSON: Good morning.

MARTIN: Why do you think Fox settled?

NELSON: I think what developed over the course of the case was the evidence, as you mentioned, just the mountains of internal emails and texts that really showed that they knew these election lies was - were false. I think at the time there was a real question. Did they know, or did they not know? And I think what the evidence revealed was that they absolutely knew, and they did it anyway.

MARTIN: And why did Dominion settle, given the strength of the evidence that you'd collected pretrial?

NELSON: That's a great question. I think, from our perspective, we had two real goals in this litigation. The first was accountability, and the second was to have our client have some type of renumeration for just this massive harm that it has received. And we achieved both of those goals. First, on accountability, over the course of the last several months and the evidence that we developed, as you mentioned, I think it's now clear what has happened and what was happening behind the scenes. And in terms of renumeration, the number that we reached, we had a couple different models for our damages. One was our base-case damages model, and then we had a growth-case damages model. And the number that we reached was really all of our base-case damages model, and we receive the money now as opposed to waiting for two, three years after appeal. In terms of...

MARTIN: So bird in hand.

NELSON: ...Where we are...

MARTIN: Bird in hand, in terms of the renumeration side, bird in hand - more attractive than possibly jeopardizing the settlement.

NELSON: Well, it's an 800 million...

MARTIN: Yeah.

NELSON: ...Bird in hand.

MARTIN: Sure.

NELSON: So...

MARTIN: Well, exactly. So the suit - that - $800 million is a big number. But there was no on-air apology. There does not seem to be any requirement of that. You know, part of the - Dominion's argument is that there was harm to its reputation. Without that, can this settlement restore Dominion's reputation, especially among the people who primarily get their news from Fox and who were thus most exposed to these lies?

NELSON: Well, I think so. And there's clearly a problem in this country, right? Dominion got swept into this torrent of lies and conspiracy theories - this alternative universe - that, of course, affected Dominion and election officials all across the country and really harmed democracy. And your question is unless people hear it over and over again, will they somehow break out of their bubble? And I would say this, Michel. This is a civil litigation. We can accomplish only so much. We could have gone all the way to a jury verdict, and there still wouldn't have been an apology. What we can do is force, through the civil litigation mechanism, the accountability through the evidence that we reveal and the money that they pay. And on those, we have achieved it. And I think that, really, we have to continue to be thinking about how we break out of this bubble...

MARTIN: Well...

NELSON: ...For all of us.

MARTIN: ...Friendly amendment, though - my question spoke to not hearing it over and over again, but hearing it at all, the people who are most likely to have heard it to begin with. But just in the minute we have left, can you just talk a little bit about the broader issues that you just surfaced? You know, Fox argued that this loss for them would have had ramifications for the First Amendment, curtailing the ability of people to air even, you know, unpopular opinions. But other people say it means that you can keep spreading lies if you can afford to write a big enough check. Does this decision establish any bright lines in your view, as briefly as you can?

NELSON: Oh, I think this was in the heartland of the First Amendment. I think what this really showed was that the actual malice standard is something that all journalists should embrace - we certainly embraced it - and that what we have here is how we balance the different rights and to make sure that we're protecting the reputation. And so I think what we did is really defend truth and that, as we said, the truth really does matter and that lies have consequences. And that's totally consistent with the First Amendment.

MARTIN: That is Justin Nelson. He's the co-lead counsel for Dominion Voting Systems in its defamation suit, now settled against Fox. Mr. Nelson, thanks so much for being here.

NELSON: Thank you.

MARTIN: We'd like to let you know that we reached out to representatives of Fox Corp. if they'd like to make any further comment, and we will let you know if they do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.