The media trial of the century never happened, which has disappointed many people in my corner of the media world. They were hoping that Dominion’s defamation suit against Fox News, filed over lies the network told its viewers about the 2020 election, would force ... something to change at the cable channel.
Maybe, hopeful Fox haters mused, the trial would expose embarrassing documents and testimony from Fox employees, managers, and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, and those revelations would somehow change the company’s programming. Or maybe Fox would be forced to pay an astonishing amount of money — enough to permanently cripple the company.
In retrospect, neither of those outcomes was likely, and that’s not what happened. Instead, in a settlement cut before the trial began Tuesday, Fox and its owner, 21st Century Fox, will pay Dominion $787.5 million, and ... that’s it. No apologies, no (dubious) promises to do better. Nada.
So for Fox, it’s business as usual again. You don’t have to like it. But it’s wishcasting to pretend anything else.
The embarrassment angle is the easiest to dismiss: Remember all those headlines, generated by damning admissions and documents from the likes of Tucker Carlson and Rupert Murdoch, that showed how Fox’s on-air talent and their managers knew they were peddling untruths to their audience about the supposed 2020 election fraud? You probably read those because you consume Actual News. (And, let’s be clear: If you’d thought about this at all, you weren’t surprised to see the deep cynicism that powers Fox spelled out in writing.)
But on Fox, the lawsuit was barely covered at all, and Fox’s media correspondent even said he was prevented from reporting on it. That’s not surprising, given the channel’s consistent commitment to presenting alternative facts, a practice which long predated the Trump era.
You may recall that in an effort to stave off lawsuits like the one Dominion filed, Fox grudgingly offered some non-apology clarifications in late 2020, then went right back to making things up. A few months later, they were providing cover for the January 6 rioters. So in 2023, hoping that Fox’s employees and owners could be shamed is simply magical thinking.
But the hopes that a defamation verdict in the Dominion case might finally force Fox to at least spell out its election lies to its viewers — even if just once — also went away with a settlement: Fox sources have told the press that the agreement doesn’t require them to make any on-air mention of the case at all. And Fox’s own press release about the deal doesn’t even mention words like “apology.” It just “acknowledge[s] the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.”
Which brings us to the money: While Dominion’s lawyers argued that they brought the case in part because they wanted to expose Fox’s lies, dropping the suit makes the primary motivation much clearer. Yes, the $787.5 million settlement is much less than the $1.6 billion the company initially asked for in damages. But it is a giant windfall for the small company and its private equity owners. It would be crazy not to take a deal like that, and let media critics worry about what happens to Fox.
And yes, $787.5 million is a lot of money, even for a big company like Fox: It represents about 20 percent of Fox’s $4 billion in cash, which means it could impact Fox’s ability to buy things or pay out dividends to its shareholders. On the other hand, Fox posted profits of $321 million in the last three months of 2022, which means it can build back up its cash pile pretty quickly.
That seems to be Wall Street’s take: 21st Century Fox stock opened down a few points the day after the settlement was announced, but as of this writing it has almost completely rebounded; the company remains worth about $17.5 billion.
In other words: Even after Fox agreed to pay nearly $788 million in a settlement (on top of the legal fees it has already spent), investors have decided the payout will have no impact on Fox’s operations.
But what about other legal troubles looming for Fox? Smartmatic, another voting machine company smeared by Fox and its on-air employees, has a similar suit underway, and is seeking even more money than Dominion did. Shareholder lawsuits also seem likely (in part because shareholder lawsuits seemingly always show up when a company has been accused of misdeeds, regardless of whether that actually makes sense).
Couldn’t all of this snowball into something truly meaningful, which would finally force Fox to change ... something?
Theoretically, sure. Practically speaking, very unlikely. As long as Fox has the ability to pay off these suits — something the company certainly believes it can do, given the precedent it set with Dominion — there’s no reason to expect any change at all.
A brief history lesson: Remember the record $5 billion fine levied by the FTC against Facebook back in 2019? Wall Street and Facebook brushed that off, too. And while that decision was part of a wave of anti-Facebook and anti-tech moves from governments worldwide, you shouldn’t expect to see anything like that in this case. There’s certainly no political will at the congressional level to punish Fox, given that half of Congress still uses Fox News as their messaging North Star. (And if there were an attempt by the US government to punish a media outlet, the pushback would be bipartisan and justified.)
Another Facebook comp, though, is a little more interesting: Four years ago, the savvy take was that Facebook was steaming along no matter what various governments had to say about it, and that’s still mostly correct. But Facebook no longer seems untouchable for other reasons. Consumers seem to be tiring of at least some of its core products; TikTok is now providing real competition for eyeballs and time spent; and a technical change made by Apple has caused Facebook’s formerly best-in-class ad machine to sputter, and it’s not clear if or when it will recover.
Fox, however, remains the dominant cable news outlet by a very long stretch, well ahead of mainstream competitors like CNN and MSNBC, as well as supposed conservative challengers like Newsmax. Yes, things could change, but there isn’t a hint of it on the horizon.
The most plausible threat to Fox News is the same threat facing every TV network in 2023: that its viewership erodes as TV viewers migrate to the internet. But Fox’s viewers, like other cable TV news operations, skew old, and that means they’re the ones least likely to give up their cable boxes. They’re also incredibly loyal, which is why Fox can charge cable TV operators — who pass the fees on to you, if you’re paying for cable TV — more money than anyone else in TV, with the exception of sports.
So until that audience, along with the revenue and clout it generates for its owner, dwindles, don’t expect Fox to budge at all.