The Independent's journalism is supported by our readers. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn commission.

Don’t be disappointed by the Fox News vs Dominion outcome – this is just the start

It’s important to acknowledge that the lawsuit provides some accountability

Noah Berlatsky
Thursday 20 April 2023 11:52 BST
(Getty/AP/Fox News)

To the general disappointment of progressive observers, Fox settled its lawsuit with Dominion voting systems just before the trial’s opening arguments were slated to begin.

I, along with plenty of others, had been hoping for a full trial. We wanted to see Fox anchors like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity testify in open court under oath that they had lied to their viewers about the election, insisting that the vote was rigged against Donald Trump when they knew it was not.

Fox was desperate to avoid that, and with a $787.5 million settlement – the biggest libel payout in American history – they did.

A long trial underlining the perfidy and recklessness of right-wing media would have been a healthy outcome for democracy, and could have even undermined Fox’s reputation with some of its fanbase.

But it’s important to acknowledge that the lawsuit does provide some accountability, and, just as important, it makes future coup attempts or assaults on democracy more difficult. We know from discovery that Fox carefully weighed incentives and financial consequences before pushing election lies. This payout changes those incentives for the future. That’s a good thing.

One of the most frustrating aspects of the ruling is that Fox didn’t even really have to admit the full extent of their guilt. “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” the company said in their official statement. And since there’s no requirement that Fox apologize on air, it’s viewers still won’t know it lied. Many probably won’t even hear that there was a trial.

“They had Fox by the absolute neck and let them go for 787.5 million dollars. WHICH IS A LOT OF MONEY for a corporation,” Elie Mystal, the justice correspondent at The Nationtweeted. “But also not a lot of money when weighed against Fox’s damage to American democracy,”.

Mystal is right. The harm Fox did in incessantly telling their viewers that the election was rigged is incalculable. More than 70 per cent of Republican voters still believe, with no evidence, that the 2022 election was stolen from Donald Trump. A majority think the violent January 6 insurrection was a legitimate protest.

We should all be worried that the GOP in 2024, or at some point in the future, may again refuse to accept election results, and may again encourage violence as a response.

The Dominion settlement doesn’t ensure that won’t happen. But it does reduce the likelihood that right-wing media will eagerly push this particular kind of propaganda again.

In texts and emails unearthed in discovery, Fox anchors and executives admitted they knew the election lies were false. They pushed them anyway because they worried that if they didn’t, their fans would turn on them and move to other news sources. Rather than telling their viewers the truth, they embraced conspiracy theories, ensuring that Trump’s lies would metastasize.

Fox was worried about their bottom line. They thought that going along with the election fraud would protect their income stream and their brand.

But they miscalculated, in part because they were focused on their market share rather than on deep-pocketed voting machine companies.

I think it’s fair to say that Fox and other right-wing media companies will never again fail to consider the ways in which election lies make them vulnerable to possible lawsuits.

That’s especially true because the lawsuits aren’t over. Dominion still has lawsuits pending against other right-wing outlets like Newsmax and OAN, and against key Trumpworld figures like Rudy Giuliani. The voting machine company Smartmatic is suing Fox for $2.7 billion. Fox also is facing shareholder lawsuits, which could potentially hold Fox leaders personally liable for the harm done to the company by airing reckless lies.

Given the outcome of the Dominion lawsuit, it doesn’t look great for the defendants in these cases.

Dominion is not necessarily committed to fighting for democracy; it’s a big corporation, and it fights for its own self-interest. It was interested in what it could win for its shareholders, not necessarily in inflicting pain and accountability on Fox.

Nonetheless, $787 million is painful, and will force an accounting. Election lies and conspiracies thrive in no small part because they are pushed by right-wing media in a race to the bottom. Fox and its competitors are now on notice that when they get to the bottom, they will be greeted by grinning lawyers and massive potential payouts.

If Trump, or someone like Trump, tries to gin up election conspiracy theories again, right-wing media is going to be wary of going along. That’s a positive outcome and one which makes our democracy a little more stable.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in