There are three hard lessons to be learned from Fox’s recent defamation suit and $787.5 million payout to Dominion Voting Systems. Photo credit: AP/Yuki Iwamura
Just before Fox News personalities had to testify in court, a settlement between the company and Dominion Voting Systems (DVS) came to light. In the agreement, Fox paid DVS a grand total of $787.5 million, but provided no apology for what many considered an egregious act of shameless journalism. Fox’s statement said, “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.” What followed included no corrections or apologies. (Note that Fox News still faces a similar $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit from Smartmatic, another voting-machine company.)
Commenting further, Fox said, “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.” When reporting the settlement on CNN, leading anchor Jake Tapper laughed through the Fox press release, signifying both the mockery within the legacy media towards Fox and the ironic whistling through the graveyard of hypocrisy they practice.
As Jim Geraghty suggested in the National Review following the settlement, there are three hard lessons to be learned from this case, the first being: There can be catastrophic financial consequences for adopting and repeating the lies of the former president.
If you believe that the 2020 election was stolen, you would have to believe there is verifiable evidence to back up that claim. At no point has there ever been evidence presented in court to prove fraud. Under oath, Rupert Murdoch, owner of Fox, said he did not believe the election was stolen, in fact, described it as free and fair. Fox had abundant reason to present evidence but didn’t, leading to the conclusion it had none.
Going forward, the likelihood of Donald Trump ceasing from spreading his conspiracy theories, lies, and falsehoods about voting machines continues. Media companies reporting on this will be thinking twice about repeating these charges and probably will, as Geraghty reports, “feel a need to push back against those claims, early and often, and on-air.” Since about 63 per cent of Republicans adopt Trump’s interpretation, and over half of them (52 per cent) say they have seen “solid” evidence of fraud, the litigious nature of Trump’s musings remains in play.
Second hard lesson: A network’s responsible journalism is not a useful legal defense against a network’s irresponsible and defamatory journalism.
At the core argument of Fox’s defense lay the idea that on-air celebrities, including Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham were merely reporting the accusations and opinions of Donald Trump, Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and other members of the 45th president’s team. How can reporting the information they were told be considered lies? Should not Trump et al. be sued as opposed to a news source that was merely reporting their findings? Herein lies the rub as well as the mainstream media’s hypocrisy and eventual culpability.
As Bill O’Reilly, one of Fox’s former anchors indicated after the 2020 election in an interview with Chris Cuomo, former CNN anchor, he would validate the constitutional right of anyone to believe the fraudulent activities in the presidential election, even accept that Trump believed the election to be rigged. But, as O’Reilly indicated, “Where is the evidence? Without evidence, the case goes nowhere. The Trump team never produced evidence.” Indeed, the personalities at Fox feared losing their audience base to other right-wing news sources like Newsmax.
In response, they decided to begin ramping up the idea of a stolen election. What became obvious to most eluded Trump loyalists, intent on holding to the argument that Democrats had cheated, specifically in Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania where early Trump leads evaporated. Fox, it would appear, made a choice to accept the Trump claims and cover the election results in light of this unproven charge.
As Delaware Superior Court judge Eric Davis ruled, “Even if the neutral report privilege did apply, the evidence does not support that FNN ‘conducted good-faith, disinterested reporting…Fox News Network’s failure to reveal extensive contradicting evidence from the public sphere and Dominion itself indicates its reporting was not disinterested.” Davis pointed to several examples where Trump surrogates made claims and Fox personalities seemed to either endorse or lead them into these falsities. Here is but one example Geraghty supplied in his report:
Sidney Powell: No, we’ve seen willful blindness. They have adopted a position of willful blindness to this massive corruption across the country, and the Smartmatic software is in the DNA of every vote tabulating the company’s software and system.
Lou Dobbs: Yes, and it is more than just a willful blindness. This is people trying to blind us to what is going on.
With the settlement now public, it would seem reasonable to conclude Fox knew they were reporting less than the truth.
Third hard lesson: It is unlikely that networks like Fox News can afford to keep loose-cannon hosts anymore.
In this case, the primary agent leading the charge, Lou Dobbs, lost his show in February 2021 after the first lawsuits were launched. On November 30, 2020, Dobbs, with grave indignation, stated:
I think most Americans right now cannot believe what we are witnessing in this election. We have, across almost every state, whether it’s Dominion, whatever the company — voting machine company is, no one knows their ownership, has no idea what’s going on in those servers, has no understanding of the software, because it’s proprietary. It is the most ludicrous, irresponsible and rancid system imaginable in the world’s only superpower… As I said at the outset of the broadcast, Sidney, this is no longer about just voter fraud or electoral fraud, this is something much bigger and this president has to take, I believe, drastic action, dramatic action, to make certain that the integrity of this election is understood, or lack of it, the crimes that have been committed against him and the American people.
Bret Baier and most of Fox’s news division, like Howard Kurtz or Dana Perino, were not mentioned in the lawsuit. The news division expressed plenty of skepticism, it was the prime-time opinion hosts, as the Geraghty report states, that created the problem, and ironically, it was Tucker Carlson who seemed to be most suspicious of the claims, growing exasperated with Powell at one point, commenting on air, “We invited Sydney Powell on the show. We would have given her the whole hour. We would have given her the entire week, actually, and listened quietly the whole time to rapt attention. She never sent us any evidence, despite a lot of polite requests. When we kept pressing, she got angry and told us to stop contacting her.”
A loose cannon cannot be controlled. They will and have said anything to get ratings, and this can cost a network millions, or even a billion dollars (as mentioned, Fox still faces a $2.7 Billion defamation lawsuit being brought by Smartmatic, another voting system company). Fox may have learned these lessons the hard way, but other media companies should beware. Their hands are not clean and their repeated lies about Russian collusion and other hot topics on the left are not beyond the reach of the courts if the evidence mounts.
Dave Redekop is a retired elementary resource teacher who now works part-time at the St. Catharines Courthouse as a Registrar. He has worked on political campaigns since high school and attended university in South Carolina for five years, where he earned a Master’s in American History with a specialization in Civil Rights. Dave loves reading biographies.