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Morning news brief

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Seven hundred eighty-seven million five hundred thousand dollars.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's how much Fox News is paying a voting technology company as part of a legal settlement. The company, Dominion Voting Systems, had sued Fox for defamation over lies the network broadcast following the 2020 presidential election.

MARTÍNEZ: Here's Dominion lawyer Stephen Shackelford after the deal was announced.

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STEPHEN SHACKELFORD: Money is accountability, and we got that today from Fox.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been covering the case. He joins us from Wilmington, Del. David, is this settlement an acknowledgment that Fox did indeed lie?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Yes and no. And let's start with the no. It's a very passively constructed statement. It says, you know, that Fox acknowledges the court's ruling that certain statements about Dominion Voting Systems were false. And that's technically true. What it doesn't say is that Fox itself broadcast and at times embraced those claims. And there's no apology on the air. But that said, it did acknowledge the falsity of it. And the lawyers that I talked to from Dominion last night pointed to that and say, look, that's really important. That's part of the record. And the court has found that, and Fox has acknowledged that.

The second thing is the size of the settlement, $787 million - just a scotch under half of the $1.6 billion Dominion had been publicly seeking for this - is so large that that's part of an apology. And the very fact that that figure was disclosed publicly - often in such settlements, those figures are not disclosed. The facts that Fox had to agree for that to be disclosed publicly meant that Dominion can always point to that and say, you know, people like Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch at the top of that corporate empire sure aren't giving more than three-quarters of a billion dollars away out of charity. That's an admission of wrongdoing right there.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned no acknowledgment on the air. Did Fox News mention it at all as part of the news?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, it reported it very briefly, sort of in a Spartan way. It did acknowledge it on some of its news shows. Its chief media host and correspondent Howard Kurtz did appear. But, you know, in its 6 p.m. political newscast, he said he hadn't been able to confirm the figure that had been announced just outside the courthouse by a phalanx of attorneys for Dominion Voting Systems - about the only reporter in America who could not do so.

MARTÍNEZ: All right, now, this case really offered the public a rare look at the inner workings of Fox News, but the outlet is kind of entangled in other litigation as well. Where do they stand on their other lawsuits?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, there's a bunch of others. There was a chief booker for Tucker Carlson's primetime show. She sued Fox, saying, among other things, they had pressured her to mislead the Court and Dominion in her testimony here. She was promptly fired. Smartmatic has a $2.7 billion lawsuit teed up against Fox. It was actually filed before Dominion. That's another voting tech company that was similarly essentially described in clearly false and defamatory ways. It was involved only in Los Angeles County in the 2020 elections - hard to believe it committed any voter fraud. And certainly there will be shareholder lawsuits as well that ensue when you see leadership of Fox involved in sort of getting them into this kind of trouble.

MARTÍNEZ: David, what do you think is the larger significance of this case and its resolution?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, you know, had this gone forward, it would have been the most important defamation trial in many, many decades. But I think the very nature of this suit tells us a lot about Fox - how it reacted in crisis, the degree in which there was cynicism here - and also that there are limits on what you can say. Even with America's incredibly stringent protections for freedom of the speech, there are limits to what the media can say and do in ways that are false and defamatory and hurtful. And Fox just bumped up against it.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's David Folkenflik in Wilmington, Del. David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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MARTÍNEZ: All right. Around midnight tonight, access to abortion pills could be heavily restricted in some states.

MARTIN: That's unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes. Mifepristone has remained available under an emergency stay requested by the Biden administration after an appeals court order that would have restricted the drug.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Sarah McCammon joins us now for a look at what could happen next. So, Sarah, what is the Biden administration asking the Supreme Court to do?

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Well, first, it's important to understand that anti-abortion groups are trying to overturn the Food and Drug Administration's approval of the abortion pill, mifepristone, and they've gotten a couple of favorable rulings from lower courts. Those are the ones on hold. So the Biden administration is asking the Supreme Court to put those rulings and any restrictions on mifepristone on hold for a longer period of time to allow for the case to be more fully argued in court. Now, in its request for an emergency stay last week, the DOJ described the litigation in this case as troubling and argued that the lower court orders would be disruptive and would, quote, "profoundly harm women, the nation's health care system, FDA and the public interest." Lawyers for the FDA, as well as outside experts, have noted that it would be unprecedented for a court to overturn a drug approval that has been in place for more than two decades, as this one has, and has been used, you know, internationally for longer than that and has a well-established safety record.

MARTÍNEZ: What are anti-abortion groups arguing?

MCCAMMON: Well, most abortions in the U.S. involve pills, and mifepristone is used in nearly all medication abortions. So some of the plaintiffs in this federal case out of Texas are doctors who oppose abortion. And they say this widespread access to the pills means they sometimes have to care for patients experiencing complications, which they say violates their beliefs. They object to the FDA's original approval of mifepristone back in 2000, as well as some rule changes that have made it more available since then, like letting pills be sent in the mail. And they cite the Comstock Act, and that's a 19th century anti-obscenity law that prohibits sending anything related to abortion in the mail. Now, the Department of Justice said last year that doesn't apply if pills are intended for legal use. But anti-abortion groups want the Supreme Court to affirm that Comstock does apply in that way. And by the way, legal experts say that interpretation could lead to nationwide abortion restrictions if the court accepts it.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. The Supreme Court, then - what might they do next?

MCCAMMON: Well, if the Supreme Court does nothing, an appeals court ruling would take effect that would limit access to the drugs. So in addition to prohibiting the pills from being distributed by mail, it would mean mifepristone could only be prescribed up to seven weeks of pregnancy instead of 10. And it could require drugmakers to relabel the pills as a result. The appeals court ruling I just mentioned would also appear to overturn the FDA's approval of a generic form of mifepristone. Carrie Flaxman is a lawyer with Planned Parenthood. She says all of that could have a major impact on the supply chain.

CARRIE FLAXMAN: That means that if the Supreme Court doesn't step in and block the decisions below, the majority of the mifepristone supply could disappear. Just to be clear, this judicial pingpong game impacting the accessibility of safe, effective, decadeslong-approved medication is causing chaos and confusion.

MCCAMMON: It appears those new restrictions I just mentioned would apply in a majority of states, but not all. That's because 17 states and the District of Columbia are involved in a competing federal lawsuit in Washington state. And for states where abortion is legal, there is a second drug called misoprostol that's usually used together with mifepristone in the U.S. And that two-pill regimen is preferred, but misoprostol can be used alone, and some providers have said they're ready to move in that direction if they lose access to mifepristone.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Sarah McCammon, thanks a lot.

MCCAMMON: Thank you.

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MARTÍNEZ: A 21-year-old National Guardsman accused of leaking top-secret intelligence documents appears in court again today.

MARTIN: The Pentagon, meanwhile, is reviewing the way classified information is distributed. And people are asking why such a junior member of the military had access to such sensitive material.

MARTÍNEZ: And that's what we're going to ask NPR national security correspondent Greg Myre. Greg, the old adage about military secrets is that they're shared on a need-to-know basis. You know, my uncle used to love saying that. He's a Marine. So why would this junior airman, Jack Teixeira, need to know?

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Well, A, after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, need to know became need to share. The belief was the government, the military and intelligence agencies weren't doing enough sharing. They were hoarding their own intelligence, and no one was connecting the dots. So we've seen this huge expansion of the national security system. Homeland Security was created. The Office of the Director of National Intelligence was established, and it oversees all 18 intelligence agencies now.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So then is the U.S. getting its money's worth? I mean, is the country getting better intelligence?

MYRE: Well, of course, this leak was very embarrassing. And the Pentagon is in damage control mode right now. But these documents do show how thoroughly U.S. intelligence has penetrated Russia's military communications network. The U.S. has consistently provided Ukraine with this detailed up-to-date information on Russian military plans, which is a huge benefit to Ukraine on the battlefield. And I spoke about this with Thomas Rid. He's a cyber expert and a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

THOMAS RID: One of the conclusions clearly is the U.S. intelligence community, especially those parts of the intelligence community that produce technical intelligence, signals intelligence, are really delivering the goods.

MYRE: Now, he says Russia will try to change the way it communicates based on what it's learned from these documents. But the Russians knew the Americans had penetrated their networks from the very beginning of the war, and they haven't been able to fix this problem over the past year.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. So it sounds like the U.S. is gathering very good intel, but does this leak then show that maybe too many people have access to it?

MYRE: Yeah, there's around 3 million Americans who have security clearances, including more than a million with top-secret clearance. And one of them was Teixeira. He was essentially an IT worker. He kept the computers humming along. So he needed access to these computers, but not to the content of these documents. And several high-profile leaks over the past decades have often involved 20-somethings with this kind of access. And Thomas Rid said this isn't an easy problem for the government to fix.

RID: Young people, meaning staffers and lower-ranking officers, they often produce that information. They are the analysts. They are the worker bees. So I don't think we can just say young people shouldn't have access. That would be too short-sighted.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, but 20-year-olds love to share everything about their lives, Greg, so are we maybe likely to see a return to the old way of doing business, back to need to know?

MYRE: Well, we're already seeing some changes. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered a review of the handling of classified documents. The place where the accused leaker, Jack Teixeira, worked, the 102nd Intelligence Wing at Otis Air Force National Guard Base on Cape Cod, is no longer performing its intelligence mission. That's been assigned to another part of the Air Force.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Greg Myre, thanks.

MYRE: Sure thing, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is co-host of Morning Edition, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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