It Costs $787.5 Million to Lie to the Public. Fox News Can Afford It.

It Costs $787.5 Million to Lie to the Public. Fox News Can Afford It.

It Costs $787.5 Million to Lie to the Public. Fox News Can Afford It.

The defamation suit brought by Dominion Voting Systems ended in a settlement yesterday, leaving the cable network’s conduct unchallenged in court.

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The media trial of the century—concerning the torrent of lies that Fox News unleashed in the wake of the 2020 presidential balloting—was resolved yesterday in an 11th-hour cash settlement of $787.5 million, less than half of the damages sought in the suit. The cash accord was a reminder of the real stakes of this high-profile battle over the meaning of defamation in a post-truth era. Money was the driving force behind Fox’s desperate embrace of the narrative of an election rigged and stolen by the Democratic foot soldiers of Joe Biden—and money is what Fox has now expended on a lavish scale in the hope that the whole sordid episode will quietly retreat to the forgotten reaches of news cycles past.

Money also was front and center for the plaintiffs in the case, Dominion Voting Systems, who alleged that Fox’s misrepresentations of how the company’s voting machines worked and where they came from produced $1.6 billion worth of adverse publicity. (In one of countless signs that the pending case was going badly for Fox, the cable giant’s PR team sent out an alert to the press that Dominion had its best financial year ever in 2022; Fox’s publicists had gone from solemn invocations of First Amendment absolutism to pleas to reduce the scale of the financial hit now staring them in the face.) Dominion, as Fox press releases tirelessly observed, is owned by a hedge fund, and the question of how for-profit administrators of our elections serve the commonweal was crowded out by the many sensational revelations of the inner workings of the Fox empire in the run-up to Tuesday’s abortive trial.

Given that the vast majority of libel and defamation cases are settled before trial, the negotiated settlement isn’t out of the ordinary—nor was it necessarily a disappointment to the plaintiffs. “Dominion is concerned about Dominion and making money, and they got what they wanted,” notes Robert McChesney, emeritus communications professor at the University of Illinois and author of Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. “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.” Indeed, the initial reports of the terms of the settlement indicate that Fox, too, is getting what it’s paid for: The agreement doesn’t oblige the network to admit on-air that it broadcast false claims or apologize for any of its actions.

Documents released prior to the trial produced a steady torrent of damning evidence showing that Fox executives and on-air personalities knowingly broadcast claims about rampant Democratic-orchestrated election fraud in the 2020 presidential balloting that weren’t remotely factual. The raft of pretrial revelations also included prime-time Fox personalities venting against Trump as—in Tucker Carlson’s words—a raging “demonic force” principally known for “destroying things.” “I hate him with a passion,” Carlson announced, in one of his only truthful utterances on the subject. Fox CEO Rupert Murdoch wasn’t much more restrained; he directed the Fox operation to try to “make Trump a nonperson” during the run-up to the January 6 insurrection, and made the case to call the 2020 election early and accurately for Biden.

What kept Fox acting in defiance of these baseline acknowledgments of political reality was the specter of losing market share to upstart right-wing news outlets like Newsmax, which gave full airing to the delusional claim that the election had been stolen from Trump. This was when the mood in the network’s C-suites turned to sober talk of salvaging the sacrosanct company “brand” and “respecting” the preferences of the audience—more euphemistic corporate doublespeak that roughly translates as “pandering harder for the sake of maintaining profitability.” The mandate of producing a counterfactual fable about the outcome of the election was the opposite of what journalism is supposed to do: namely, to help create and sustain an informed citizenry that can meaningfully deliberate on the pressing issues of the day. Of necessity, this civic mission more often than not means telling audiences and readers precisely what they don’t wish to hear. Fox’s phony call for company-wide “respect” for the audience was a de facto marketing plan to infantilize the Fox viewership.

“They think their viewers are morons—that they can’t handle evidence that goes against their biases and beliefs,” McChesney says. “The last thing this means is respect. They don’t think they can handle the same truths they can handle behind closed doors at Fox. It’s just greed; they want to turn them upside down and shake the money out of their pants. And they know if they start telling the truth, [viewers] will switch to Newsmax or one of these other channels who will give them what they want.”

This is the central truth that was set to be litigated in the Dominion trial, and now that the proceedings have ground to an abrupt halt, Fox is free to resume pursuing its morally bankrupt, counter-journalistic model in the pursuit of ever greater profitability. For all the forensic discussion of how the Dominion business model is faring, the most troubling market indicator arising from this legal fight is that Fox has not suffered any loss in audience share as a result of the damaging revelations from the Dominion suit.

That’s the dismal state of public discourse as mass-produced and monitored by the interests who now pretend to do journalism in the United States. “The bigger story in journalism is that Wall Street has given up on it. It’s abandoned the field entirely to hedge funds and whoever wants to strip it for parts,” McChesney says. “So no one can make money at journalism. The only ones who are making money are broadcasters who do this very simplistic formula—not just Fox, all of them. They cover like three stories, and you wouldn’t know the rest of the world exists unless the State Department tells them what to write about. Will that change? Not as long as we’re relying on the marketplace.”

The Dominion case, at the end of the day, won’t serve as a precedent for future generations of news producers. A verdict against Fox might have reminded it with stark certainty that granting acres of airtime to the cynical and manipulative stolen election grift was a line that responsible journalists should never think of crossing. Instead, the relevant lesson here is the same one Fox viewers regularly encounter every time they check in on Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and company: In the land of the Trump-sanctioned shakedown, the grift is king.

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