‘Dominion wins but the public loses’: Fox settlement avoids paying the highest price
The staggering $787.5m settlement between Fox and the voting equipment company Dominion marked the end of one of the most aggressive efforts to hold someone accountable for spreading misinformation after the 2020 election.
Dominion sued Fox for $1.6bn in damages for knowingly broadcasting false information about the company after the election. The money from the settlement, one of the largest libel payouts in media history, was just the icing on a cake Dominion had, in many ways, already won.
And yet, while Fox doled out an unprecedented sum, they were able to avoid something priceless: the public humiliation of a trial and an apology.
Over the last several months, Dominion has created a valuable historical artifact, publishing an internal trove of messages that showed Fox hosts and executives knew their claims about Dominion were false and advanced them anyway. It was cache that laid bare how America’s most powerful media outlet lies and distorts the truth to whip up its conservative base.
“The interesting and important aspect of this settlement is that it came well after we might have expected Fox wanted it to occur. All of the sordid details from behind the scenes – about what key Fox players said about Fox sources, about Trump, and about the network’s own audience – came to light,” said RonNell Andersen Jones, a first amendment scholar at the University of Utah.
“It seems clear that Dominion was motivated not just to win compensation for its own injury but to have a public-facing accountability for election denialism and disinformation. The timing of the settlement reflects that.”
But the lack of a six-week trial meant that Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Maria Bartiromo, and Jeanine Pirro would not have to own up to their role in spreading dangerous misinformation after the 2020 election. It suggests that lies, no matter how dangerous or insidious, are tolerable as long as you have the money to back it up. “You could argue that Dominion wins but the public loses,” Brian Stelter, the respected media reporter who has written extensively about Fox, tweeted after the settlement.
Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars Fox will have to pay, it appears that it also won’t have to suffer an even more brutal penalty: while the full terms of the agreement were not disclosed, CNN, Axios and the New York Times reported that it reportedly does not contain a clause that forces the network to apologize on air for making false claims about Dominion. Such a statement would have forced America’s most powerful media organization to look its millions of loyal viewers in the eye and tell them that it lied about the 2020 election being stolen, a belief that has now become orthodox among Republicans.
“I’d expected, given the wider public lesson that Dominion said it wanted to teach in this case, that it would have insisted on more acknowledgment or apology in the settlement,” Jones said. She said Fox’s tongue-twisting statement recognizing that the court found its statements about Dominion were false was likely the best concession Dominion was able to get.
The settlement will not undo the damage done at the local level, where officials continue to face harassment and pressure to get rid of Dominion voting equipment. It’s also unclear if anyone at the network or its parent company will be fired for airing false statements. “The part that I’m interested in seeing is: what does the apology sound like? Who gets fired? What are the consequences inside the company?” said Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News political director who was fired after correctly calling the 2020 election for Joe Biden, to Semafor after the settlement.
Already, Murdoch and Fox seem to be brushing off the suit. In its own post-settlement statement, Fox half-heartedly acknowledged it had broadcast false claims about Dominion. “We acknowledge the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” the company said.
Jane Kirtley, a media professor at the University of Minnesota, expressed doubts that the settlement would result in meaningful change at Fox.
“I’m not saying it shouldn’t change things at Fox. But, they seem so convinced that their approach to news is the right one – some would call it arrogance – that I can’t imagine that they feel chastened,” she said.
There were plenty of good reasons, however, why both sides settled the case. Fox was facing a swell of strong evidence against it – and Dominion may have had a hard time getting a jury to believe it had suffered the full $1.6bn worth of damage.
Still, a settlement may reflect the limits of using defamation as a tool to police misinformation. Defamation law is a field that uses money to address an injury. It can protect an individual or organization that has been reputationally damaged, but may not get at bigger, societal issues.
“We can’t get from this suit one clear answer about the so-called big lie,” Jones said before the trial. “This suit isn’t asking or answering the question, ‘Was the election stolen?’ ‘Did voter fraud take place?’ It’s asking the very specific question of ‘did this news organization tell knowing lies about this company in ways that hurt this company?’”
Fox’s legal troubles aren’t over. It still faces a $2.7bn defamation lawsuit from Smartmatic, another voting equipment company. It also faces a shareholder lawsuit seeking damages for spreading false claims, as well as a suit from a former employee who says she was coerced into giving misleading testimony in the Dominion suit.
Dominion isn’t ending its push for accountability for 2020 lies either. It has ongoing defamation lawsuits against some of the most prolific spreaders of election misinformation: Sidney Powell, Mike Lindell, Rudy Giuliani, Patrick Byrne, as well as One America News Network and Newsmax.
But will the landmark settlement change anything at Fox? Probably not, said Lee Levine, an attorney who has defended news organizations in defamation suits.
“For Fox, this is, however sadly, a cost of doing business,” he said.
via the Guardian
April 19, 2023 at 06:40AM