Fox News will pay $787.5 million for spreading false information about how a small voting technology corporation helped steal the 2020 election. However, it is impossible to place a figure on eroded trust in US democracy.
The conservative channel and Dominion Voting Systems reached a last-minute settlement Tuesday, halting a blockbuster jury trial and delivering a staggering financial settlement after a process that had already exposed Fox’s willingness to parrot election conspiracy theories that its executives and anchors knew weren’t true.
The agreement compensated Dominion for the harm done to its reputation and refuted erroneous assertions that their devices were merely used to switch vote totals from ex-President Donald Trump to President Joe Biden. It was a significant triumph for the firm’s lawyers, and the big compensation reinforced the decision to file the case in the context of a civil court dispute.
“This is the first time that anyone has paid a price for telling lies about the 2020 election, and we are very proud of that,” Dominion’s lead lawyer, Justin Nelson, told the associated press, arguing that the settlement ensured accountability for the company and solidified a shared vision of national facts critical to democracy’s survival.
There have been little repercussions for Trump’s lawyers and supporters who spread falsehoods and nonsense about a fair election in 2020 that the ex-president lost, though several important players and other right-wing networks are facing their own Dominion defamation actions. Another voting technology company, Smartmatic, is suing Fox News for defamation in a pending case. And Trump is facing many criminal investigations in connection with his efforts to overturn the 2020 election and the lead-up to January 6, 2021, insurgency.
Dominion’s lawyers said that they provided a vital civic service by eliciting the truth about how Fox News functions and how its bosses feared that fact-checking Trump’s assertions might drive viewers away from other right-wing sources. Much of this information was revealed in a flurry of pre-trial legal documents that received extensive media publicity.
But, outside of the legal and financial context, does Nelson’s assertion that this was a moment of public accountability ring true, especially given Trump’s continued use of election lies as a fundamental currency in his 2024 campaign? Is there any hope that Fox’s humiliation may help to restore some of the damage done by the dismal election aftermath in 2020? Will the settlement have any impact on a conservative media business that monetizes lies?
Fox News will pay a high financial price in the settlement, and its reputation has suffered greatly as a result of the revelation that its anchors knew Trump’s statements were false. However, the terms of the deal do not require those prime-time stars to apologize on the broadcast.
Ironically, without the channel’s anchors admitting it on TV, the viewers they didn’t want to offend by giving them the truth about the election may never know they were deceived.
This is one reason why the large compensation is unlikely to cause much of a stir in the conservative media bubble and among the millions of Trump supporters who have bought into his lies about 2020.
As a result, there is little prospect that the payment will do anything to undermine the ex-president’s alternative reality that he was illegally ousted from office. While the amount of Tuesday’s payment may make conservative networks more careful in defaming specific companies like Dominion, they are unlikely to abandon their profitable business model. So, while the conclusion of this lawsuit has significant media and business implications, it may have little impact on future US elections.
Fox avoided the most devastating public spectacle
Fox’s statement on Tuesday revealed that, while the big check it will issue to Dominion is effectively an admission of guilt and a devastating blow to its finances, the public spin surrounding the ruling – and how it will be transmitted through the conservative media landscape – would be highly conditioned.
“We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” Fox said in a statement that came up short of apologizing publicly. “We are hopeful that our decision to settle this dispute with Dominion amicably, rather than through the acrimony of a divisive trial, will allow the country to move on from these issues,” the statement continued.
Another way the country could have avoided such acrimony would have been if no one had produced or spread fraudulent voter fraud charges, which were initially spun by Trump and finally led to an unprecedented mob attack on Congress by his fans.
Fox avoided having the wealthy chairman of Fox Corporation, Rupert Murdoch, top editors, and stars like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson testify under oath regarding its coverage of the election by settling before the trial. For Fox News’ detractors, it will be a missed cathartic opportunity to hold Fox’s leadership accountable for their actions. Even in the conservative bubble, Fox would have struggled to conceal such a sight.
That lapse in accountability will be significant because charges that the 2020 election was tainted are not a relic of the past. Two years later, they remain a poisonous and self-perpetuating reality. Trump never misses an opportunity to update his lies about 2020, and he utilizes the notion that he was unfairly removed from office to energize voters for his re-election attempt in 2024. According to polls, a huge number of conservatives have lost faith in the electoral system and believe that Biden did not receive enough votes to win the presidency. According to an associated press poll conducted in July 2022, only 29% of Republicans believe that US elections truly reflect the will of the people.
No single lawsuit can undo the damage done by 2020
The extent to which Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories have undermined democracy is debatable. Despite the insurgency, the constitutional safeguards protecting the transfer of power remained in place in Congress and the courts. When voters in battleground areas were presented with GOP nominees who supported Trump’s lies in the midterms, they were most often rejected, dampening Republican dreams of a red-wave election.
However, the erosion of democracy is not always obvious. In countries where political freedoms have been eroded, a gradual erosion of trust in democratic institutions occurs over time. Growing public skepticism about the integrity of elections, as well as judicial and political institutions, has a negative cumulative effect. So, while the $787 million payment to Dominion will help to rehabilitate the company’s reputation, it will not erase lies about 2020 from public perception or reverse their impact among conservative voters. The damage has been done.
Nonetheless, some Washington veterans were more positive about the settlement’s long-term impact.
The magnitude of the payment, according to Norm Eisen, a former White House special assistant for ethics and government reform, sends an obvious message.
“It’s a huge number for a settlement of this kind,” Eisen told the associated press. “That sends a message, and Fox has also had to admit to making false statements.” Even if Fox does not cover it, this is such a massive news story that it will reach every corner of our country.”
And, according to Benjamin Ginsberg, a Republican election lawyer, “All settlements end up with a little bit of good and a little bit of disappointment.” According to the associated press, the deal is “extremely damaging to those who claim the election was stolen.” This was a critical day for restoring trust in American elections.”
However, Dominion’s lawyer, Nelson, admitted that, although providing a pro-democracy statement, even a three-quarters-billion-dollar payment could not undo the damage caused by lying about the 2020 election.
“I believe it demonstrates that we will not relent in holding people accountable for these election lies, which, to be clear, continue to cause tremendous harm to Dominion and our country.” There are still a lot of individuals who believe it.”