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Fox pays $787 million for its 2020 election lies

Dominion Voting Systems will get $787 million of the $1.6 billion it originally sought.

A wall wrapper in red, white, and blue reads: Fox News Channel: How do you Fox News?
Fox News’ headquarters in March 2023, ahead of its settlement with Dominion Voting Systems.
Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

The voting machine company Dominion Voting Systems has reportedly reached a $787 million settlement with Fox in its defamation suit against the network over misleading coverage of the 2020 election, just before the case was slated to go to trial.

Dominion Voting Systems has claimed that Fox News knowingly boosted lies about the voting machine company rigging the election against former President Donald Trump that caused irreparable harm to its business. In a news conference Tuesday, Dominion attorney Justin Nelson said that the settlement represented “accountability.”

“This settlement reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards. We are hopeful that our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion amicably, instead of the acrimony of a divisive trial, allows the country to move forward from these issues,” Fox said in a statement Tuesday.

Though the case has ended on day one of the planned five-week trial, voluminous court filings have already revealed text messages and emails among Fox producers, on-air personalities, and executives — including chair Rupert Murdoch — providing a rare window into how the network elevated false conspiracy theories, even as top Fox officials privately dismissed them. Those communications also show how Murdoch played a key role in shaping coverage and endorsed the network’s strategy of catering to its viewers who still believed in Trump.

Fox had tried to tie its fate in the case to the future of media, arguing that a judgment forcing the company to pay up for reporting on allegations made by the then-president would have eroded press freedoms under the First Amendment more broadly. But legal experts have said that if Fox couldn’t be held accountable for its wrongful journalistic practices in this case, no news organization can be.

“The conduct here is way over the line,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the watchdog organization Media Matters for America, ahead of the settlement. “It’s extraordinary for a person in [Murdoch’s] position to be so actively steering news coverage around anything, let alone a specific story that they know is not true. I think that’s partly why it’s hard to apply what’s happening in this case to other news operations.”

While Fox may have been able to avoid a decision on those thornier First Amendment questions at play in the case by settling, it’s still on the hook not just financially but potentially reputationally. That still might not stop the most-watched network in cable news from continuing its editorial strategy of obscuring truths that could alienate its mostly right-wing audience.

“I think Fox’s coverage in the short term gets brighter and hotter as a last-ditch play to retain their audience,” Carusone said.

Fox’s financial and legal troubles don’t end there: Smartmatic, another voting technology company, is also demanding damages of $2.7 billion in a separate defamation suit against Fox, which is soon scheduled to move forward.

Furthermore, a Fox shareholder sued Murdoch last week for breach of fiduciary duty over his failure to prevent the network from advancing Trump’s election lies and exposing itself to legal liability. Some companies with business ties to Fox are reportedly contemplating similar litigation.

Don’t expect Fox to change its ways

The lawsuit was costly for Fox in ways that go beyond the settlement money itself.

As part of the discovery process, Dominion obtained extensive internal documentation from Fox, which it revealed in pretrial court filings over the past few months. The revelations embarrassed the network, showing some Fox hosts privately didn’t believe Trump’s false claims of a stolen election yet played along anyway on air, and how executives and opinion hosts were irate at their news side colleagues for debunking Trump’s claims.

Yet anyone hoping this experience will spur Fox to change its ways is likely headed for disappointment.

Indeed, as the lawsuit advanced, Fox seemed to draw closer to Trump again, after a period in which the coverage of the former president had been toned down. In the past month, Trump has given interviews to Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson — the latter of whom had privately texted in 2021 that he hated Trump “passionately” and that the Trump era was a “disaster” with no “upside,” a Dominion filing revealed.

The lesson the network will likely take from this fiasco is more limited: that the invented, conspiratorial nonsense about Dominion changing votes went a bit too far over the line, so they need to be somewhat more careful with making obviously false claims in the future. 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 — as Carlson’s recent segments about the January 6, 2021 attacks demonstrate. All that is core to their business model. That was one of the biggest takeaways from all those internal Fox documents — that the network is terrified of alienating its own Trump-supporting audience, and feels compelled to do whatever it takes to retain their trust and loyalty.

This is a developing story and will be updated frequently.