Tuesday, April 23, 2024

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How damaging was the Dominion suit for Fox News?

Fox News on Tuesday agreed to pay a $787.5 million settlement to Dominion Voting Systems, bringing an abrupt end to a high-profile defamation case over the network implicating Dominion in a nonexistent plot to rig the 2020 presidential election in Joe Biden’s favor. The last-minute settlement allowed Fox to avert a lengthy public trial and potential damages of up to $1.6 billion had the jury decided in Dominion’s favor.

“The truth matters,” Dominion lawyer Justin Nelson told reporters outside the courthouse. “Lies have consequences.” The case centered around a long list of false claims promoted on the air by Fox News hosts and guests asserting that Dominion had rigged voting machines as part of a mass conspiracy to hand the election to Biden.

A series of texts and emails released as part of the case revealed that Fox personalities and management knew that these claims, along with the broader “Big Lie” pushed by former President Donald Trump and his supporters, were false. Fox aired them anyway, the documents show, over concerns that telling its audience the truth about the election would lead viewers to abandon the network for other right-wing outlets like One America News Network and Newsmax. The disclosures also detailed internal discussions in which Fox founder Rupert Murdoch tried to manage viewer anger about the election, and primetime host Tucker Carlson confessed to hating Trump “passionately.”

In a statement, Fox wrote, “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.” Reports suggest, however, that the network will not have to formally apologize or issue an on-air correction to the falsehoods it promoted about Dominion.

Why there’s debate

Despite the extraordinary sum Fox must pay, believed to be the largest known defamation settlement in U.S. history, there was a sense among some of the network’s biggest critics that Fox got off easy.

They argue that a company as big as Fox can easily absorb a $787 million loss and the amount is certainly not enough to force the network to abandon its core business model or diminish its support for Trump. Some argued that by avoiding a trial, Fox was spared from the reputational damage that would have come during weeks of potentially embarrassing testimony in which executives and high-profile personalities would have had to defend their on-air reports under oath.

Others say it was naive to believe that a civil lawsuit from a private company would ever bring down the country’s most popular news channel. The network has largely ignored the issue and neither its stock price nor its ratings appear to have been affected. But some argue that it doesn’t mean the suit was ultimately pointless. They say having to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars may make Fox hesitant to push the most egregious conspiracy theories — and that the revelations leading up to the settlement have cemented the view outside of the right-wing ecosystem that Fox should not be treated as a real news outlet.

A few commentators even made the case that this was the best possible outcome for the public as a whole. They argue that although Fox’s actions were hard to defend, a trial and eventual verdict against the network could have eroded legal protections that allow all news outlets to operate without being sued into oblivion when they inevitably make mistakes.

What’s next

The settlement is far from the end of Fox’s legal troubles. Another election tech company, Smartmatic, has filed a similar suit and is asking for $2.7 billion in damages. Fox may also face litigation from its own shareholders.

Dominion also has several pending cases against advocates of the Big Lie, including MyPillow executive Mike Lindell and Newsmax.

Perspectives

Fox’s business model is far too lucrative for a single lawsuit to force it to change

“Perhaps some of the right’s kookiest claims will be avoided or caveated a bit more before appearing on Fox. But the network certainly won’t give up on conspiracy theories or on pandering to the GOP base’s resentments … All that is core to their business model.” — Nicole Narea and Andrew Prokop, Vox

All news organizations should feel relieved that legal protections for the press remain intact

“The media cheering for Fox to lose were in effect cheering for a verdict that could have meant more lawsuits, many of them meritless, against journalists. Their hatred of Fox and conservatives is so strong that they ignored their self-interest.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal

Fox has gotten out of this situation largely unscathed

“I think there’s a sense among Fox viewers, there’s really no sign that this has kind of pierced their bubble … this has been a television show aired on other channels basically and there’s not really much evidence that this has done damage to Fox’s core business, which is booming, or that its viewers have lost trust.” — Semafor editor in chief Ben Smith to CNBC

The Big Lie can only be defeated at the ballot box, not in a courtroom

“No lawsuit, no investigation, no state intervention can prevent people from believing falsehoods they want to be true. The only real solution is to prevent those operating under such delusions, or the politicians beholden to them, from wielding power. And that is not the work of the courts, or of corporations like Dominion. That, unfortunately, is the work of politics. And in a democracy, it is work that never ends.” — Adam Serwer, Atlantic

As unsatisfying as the case may be for Fox’s critics, the public is better off as a result

“The sum Dominion has actually won, without taking a risk on an extended and unpredictable jury trial, amounts to nearly four times the company’s value. That’s a very big deal. But here’s an even bigger deal: The system that protects our freedoms endures, even stronger than before.” — Dennis Aftergut, Salon

The settlement could alter how Fox covers Trump’s most outrageous statements

“This is going to make covering former president Trump potentially litigious matter going forward, as Trump is unlikely to ever back down from his conspiracy theories and could repeat his false and defamatory claims about any of the voting-machine companies at any time. Any television network covering Trump will feel a need to push back against those claims, early and often, and on-air.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

The case provided undeniable proof of what Fox News really is

“The case exposed Fox News as a dishonest organization like never before. It’s hard for any fair-minded observer to consider the channel as anything other than a propaganda profit machine void of the most basic ethics. The case shredded to pieces the little that remained of the talk channel’s credibility.” — Oliver Darcy, CNN

The legal system doesn’t provide any real ways for the public to hold Fox accountable

“The irony here is that when a profit-making entity claims that the news harms it, it can get a fair hearing and a jury trial, and the truth comes out, or can come out. But when you get spoon-fed lies about this country or that country over 10 years of some idiotic war, the families of the deceased soldiers, or the taxpayers who got ripped off, can’t sue. They don’t have any role in court to play. It’s truly perverse.” — Robert McChesney, media industry researcher, to The Nation

The settlement was a win for Dominion and no one else

“After the settlement Dominion lawyer Justin Nelson declared, ‘Today represents a ringing endorsement for truth and for democracy.’ … I wish that were true. But it’s not really. … This is great for Dominion. But the rest of us will have to wait for the accountability that has proved so elusive.” — Charlie Sykes, Bulwark

This may just be the first blow in a much bigger assault on Fox

“I’m not sure I believe it — Fox has just shown the world what it’s willing to pay to avoid the unmasking. But reality isn’t done with Murdoch and the rest of them yet.” — Michelle Goldberg, New York Times

Is there a topic you’d like to see covered in “The 360”? Send your suggestions to the360@yahoonews.com.

Photo illustration: Jack Forbes/Yahoo News; photos: Ethan Miller/Getty Images, David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images, Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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