Fox pays $787 million: a small price for defaming America

Tim Woolard, Contributor

On Jan. 6, 2021, when rioters forced their way into the U.S. Capitol to halt the certification of a fair and free election, they donned campaign T-shirts, chanted slogans, swore oaths, waved flags, raised signs and told lie after lie. Of course, some rioters did not realize they were lying — they were only imitating what they had seen on TV. Over two years later, we are finally beginning to see media outlets like Fox News punished for pushing “The Big Lie.” There was no doubt that Fox had defamed Dominion Voting Systems; that did not require a trial. That Fox had spread these lies with “actual malice” was abundantly clear to its own legal team, who agreed last Tuesday to settle for over $787 million rather than to stand before a jury. So, the malice was real, but who was the target? Was Fox’s intention to tarnish the reputation of Dominion or of American democracy itself? If it were the latter, then $787 million would amount to less than a slap on the wrist. And while this sum certainly represents a windfall for Dominion, which earns approximately $40 million a year, and a temporary setback for Fox, which generates $4 billion a quarter, for average Americans, it will not automatically restore faith in the American democratic system. It will not deter news outlets from manipulating them. 

If Fox can maintain its lead in the cable news market through reckless journalism and telling malicious lies, then it can afford to lose a court case or two every few years.

It was not too long ago that the ultimate form of radical patriotism was not to attempt to destroy American democracy — as some of those insurrectionists may believe — but rather to fight overseas to spread it. When I was a kid, my mother put on the local news each morning, and as I ate breakfast and prepared for school, I watched tanks roll through the streets of Baghdad and heard words exalting our brand of democracy as a beacon of hope in devastated, war-torn lands. Was spreading democracy sufficient justification for invading other countries? Well, maybe that was a big lie too. But it was a lie that only functioned because most Americans believed our democracy was so sound that it ought to be shared. Since then, there has been a complete reversal and today, most Republicans still believe the 2020 election was rigged. 

The texts and emails that emerged during the deposition showed that the assault on democracy was motivated principally by greed — Fox executives noticed that they were losing their audience to smaller, far-right news outlets and sought to win them back. But if money were the principal factor, then Fox is playing a delicate numbers game. If Fox can maintain its lead in the cable news market through reckless journalism and telling malicious lies, then it can afford to lose a court case or two every few years. The Dominion case was big, much bigger than Fox likely anticipated, but it was strong only because Fox had been sloppy. Now, they need only to take good notes and correct the errors. Besides, Dominion was not the only target of Fox’s ire during the 2020 election. Poll workers, secretaries of state, governors and postal workers were all targets of baseless claims of voter fraud that were echoed on Fox segments. Fox profited from defaming these people and will likely never have to pay for it. 

Personally, I would have liked to see the case go before a jury. The $1.6 billion that Dominion originally sought could have seriously wounded the cable news giant, and a trial might have further damaged Fox’s reputation and credibility among its audience. So, while others have touted the settlement as a win for America, unless you have a stake in Dominion, I do not buy it.