The trial Fox News deserves

Dominion's attempt to take the cable network to trial may have been a dud — but this is far from over for Fox

By Heather Digby Parton


Published April 19, 2023 9:00AM (EDT)

Participant seen holding a sign at the protest. On Election Day 2022, members of the activist groups Truth Tuesdays and Rise and Resist gathered at the weekly FOX LIES DEMOCRACY DIES event outside the NewsCorp Building at 1211 6th Ave. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Participant seen holding a sign at the protest. On Election Day 2022, members of the activist groups Truth Tuesdays and Rise and Resist gathered at the weekly FOX LIES DEMOCRACY DIES event outside the NewsCorp Building at 1211 6th Ave. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Talk about an anticlimax. For the past couple of weeks we've all been on tenterhooks waiting for the latest trial of the century, the defamation case by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News. The judge had already ruled that there was ample proof that Fox had lied so all Dominion had to prove was that they did it with malice (which I think we can all see every day by the venom they spew). The weeks of very juicy discovery material which had already become public, exposing the executive suite and all the top Fox stars as venal liars, were thrilling previews of what was assumed to be the main event: the prospect of all of them, including the Murdoch patriarch himself, Rupert, on the witness stand trying to explain how they could square what they said in private with what they said publicly. It led to the exciting expectation that this was going to be a long overdue comeuppance for the right-wing propaganda outlet.

Sadly, it was a dud.

Just as they had chosen a jury and were about to start opening arguments, a settlement was reached and the trial was over before it started. Dominion lawyers and executives took to the microphones and announced that they had accepted a whopping settlement offer of $787,500,000.00. Fox News issued a preposterous statement and that was the end of that:

To say it was a disappointment is a massive understatement. I think all of us who care about our country and about journalism were hoping that this might finally break the pernicious right-wing juggernaut Rupert and Roger (Ailes) built that has brought us to this dangerous political moment. But we were being unrealistic. A defamation case by one private company against another private company is a weak instrument with which to save democracy.

To say it was a disappointment is a massive understatement

As much as we wanted to hear about Rupert Murdoch squirming on the stand and yearned to see Tucker Carlson forced to read a statement on the air admitting that he lied repeatedly, it was always about money. Dominion got a massive payout, for which you can't really blame them for taking. There were many legal observers who felt confident they would win the case but that their 1.2 billion dollar claim for damages was weak. For Fox, it's just the cost of doing business. It cost a bundle but they live to lie another day and make a tidy profit doing it.

As my colleague Amanda Marcotte astutely observed, Fox News thought it had been grooming its audience for over two decades to believe everything the hosts said and it turned out that they had actually been groomed to only hear what they wanted to hear. Today's Fox viewers are impervious to any information that conflicts with their worldview and we know this because when Fox reporters and pundits tepidly suggested that Trump's insistence that the vote had been stolen was not borne out by the facts, Trump unleashed a primal scream and his followers lashed out hysterically, decamping to the competing networks OANN and Newsmax which were happily disseminating the Big Lie. If Fox has learned a lesson from this it's almost certainly that they need to pay even closer attention to the jungle drums in the right-wing fever swamp --- and maybe just a teensy bit more careful when they go about defaming private companies.

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If the settlement had forced Fox celebrities to read a statement apologizing and admitting that they'd knowingly spread lies about the election on air, I feel confident that the viewers would not believe a word of it. There is no limit to the rationalizations MAGA true believers are capable of coming up with to justify their refusal to face reality. I might even expect Trump himself to say that it was a smart business move by Fox just to get the lawsuit out of the way. After all, he himself spent 25 million to settle the Trump University fraud lawsuit after he was elected in 2016. (And as much as he might diss Fox whenever they stray, they've recently come back in the fold and he is running for president.)

The cost of doing business is getting very expensive for Fox News.

This case isn't the end of the line. The other voting machine company, Smartmatic, has also filed a lawsuit asking for over $2 billion in damages. This settlement will only help their cause. Their lawyer, Erik Connolly, issued this statement after the settlement was announced:

Dominion's litigation exposed some of the misconduct and damage caused by Fox's disinformation campaign. Smartmatic will expose the rest. Smartmatic remains committed to clearing its name, recouping the significant damage done to the company, and holding Fox accountable for undermining democracy.

With what we already know, it does seem likely that Murdoch is going to have to write another big check. And now we see the shareholder suits coming online. The cost of doing business is getting very expensive for Fox News.

There is a silver lining for those of us who were looking for some sort of justice. The power of the paper trail that Dominion was able to obtain proved without a doubt that Fox knew that Joe Biden had won the election. They were told by many people both internally and externally that Trump was lying and there was no basis to his claims. It is now in the public record that they lie to their audience because their audience demands to be lied to and they only care about ratings and money. There are tapes and emails and text messages all proving they are what we always thought they were and we know for a fact they are not only not a news organization, they know they are not a news organization.

There really is a win for America in all this. Everything we've learned from the depositions and the discovery documents can't be disappeared. The truth still matters to most of us and the truth is that Fox is not really about ideology or even sheer political power. Fox News' mission is to entertain its audience by telling them whatever they want to hear for money. They can continue to perform for their audience, and they will, but everyone else knows what they really are: a greedy carnival act, slavering over the attention of a bunch of deluded conspiracy theorists. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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