WASHINGTON: Fox News averted a potentially humiliating defamation trial after a last-minute settlement Tuesday, but it took a reputational beating that observers said was unlikely to spur the influential broadcaster to tame its “disinformation engine.”
The network, one of the most powerful and profitable in the United States, agreed to a $787.5 million settlement in a lawsuit launched by voting technology company Dominion over its coverage of false rigging claims in the 2020 election.
While Fox News wriggled out of what was expected to be an explosive trial, analysts said the settlement was a rare example that showed there could be a heavy price for blatant disinformation—even for once-untouchable media giants.
“This can be seen as a wake-up call for live broadcasters and a reminder that there really is a difference between false factual statements, and knowingly broadcasting such false information, and protected speech,” Roy Gutterman, a Syracuse University professor, told AFP.
Dominion, which sued Fox News for $1.6 billion, had alleged that the network promoted Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that its voting machines were used to rig the 2020 election in favor of Joe Biden. The settlement meant that none of the broadcaster’s high-profile personalities—including Fox Corporation chairman Rupert Murdoch and hosts such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity—will have to testify. “A loss—and the trial process itself—would have been much worse for Fox,” John Culhane, a professor at Delaware Law School at Widener University, told AFP. “They were staring down the prospect of a parade of high-profile witnesses having to try to defend their disinformation machinery to a jury. The audio would have been replayed a thousand times, forever.”
Dominion had released copious amounts of internal Fox News communications, including text messages and emails, showing that its executives dismissed Trump’s claims and even expressed a revulsion for the former president despite praising him on air. “The stain this leaves on Fox can’t be wiped out with money,” said Angelo Carusone, president of the advocacy group Media Matters.
“The network has been completely exposed as a partisan propaganda outlet that is willing to do anything for profit and power.” Under the terms of the settlement, the broadcaster will neither have to apologize for or admit to spreading falsehoods on network programming, according to US media.
Will the huge settlement be enough to stop the conservative network from doing the same in the future? Many analysts were sceptical. “Will Fox’s disinformation engine be chastened? I doubt it,” Gregory Miller, the co-founder of the nonpartisan nonprofit OSET Institute, told AFP.
“It may bring about some cooling off, but I fear it will be in full gear” in the lead up to the 2024 presidential election. Experts predict a highly polarized 2024 race. Trump—whose false claim that the previous election was stolen from him incited a violent mob to attack the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 — is running for president for a third time and remains a front-runner for the Republican nomination.
‘Roadmap for falsehoods’
Fox News’s legal troubles are hardly over. It faces another $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit by another voting technology company Smartmatic, which has similarly accused the network of false narratives that it played a role in Trump’s 2020 defeat.
“Dominion’s litigation exposed some of the misconduct and damage caused by Fox’s disinformation campaign,” a Smartmatic attorney said in a statement reported by US media. “Smartmatic will expose the rest.” Miller voiced concern that Tuesday’s settlement, which arguably reaffirms the high bar for media defamation, could provide “other networks with a legal roadmap for disseminating future falsehoods.” And if the settlement is characterized by Fox or its supporters as a “victory” that could be even more disruptive, he added.
“Fox can basically flip this as being the victim,” Andrew Selepak, media professor at University of Florida, told AFP. “I’m sure there are some people… who might be celebrating this result, but don’t recognize that once a precedent is set, it can be turned on anybody. “While Fox can survive a settlement this large, you know, there (are) a lot of news organizations that would not be able to.” —AFP