Takeaways from the Fox News-Dominion settlement

The most anticipated media trial of recent years was averted at the last minute Tuesday, when Dominion Voting Systems settled the defamation case it had brought against Fox News.

Dominion had been seeking $1.6 billion in damages. The company argued that its business had been badly hurt by conspiracy theories around the 2020 election — theories that, Dominion contended, had been advanced on Fox shows even though key people at the network knew them to be false.

The voting technology company and Fox ultimately settled on Tuesday, for $787.5 million.

The enormous sum spoke to the gravity of the case. 

Here are the other main takeaways.

Dominion was bought off

The settlement robbed ardent media-watchers of the spectacle of a long trial. But it also robbed the public of a more definitive account, delivered publicly and under oath, of exactly what happened inside Fox News.

Importantly, Fox will not apologize, on-air or anywhere else, for the alleged defamation.

Instead, the network merely said in a Tuesday statement: “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.”

The statement also noted that the settlement avoided “the acrimony of a divisive trial.”

In short, Dominion had argued that Fox had helped propagate claims of election conspiracy which producers, hosts and executives knew were false.

In support of those claims, it had including in legal filings details such as host Tucker Carlson telling his producer that then-Trump attorney Sidney Powell — a key force behind many of the election conspiracy theories — “is lying.” Another Fox host, Laura Ingraham, called Powell “a bit nuts.”

On-air, Fox talent was far less scathing of the false claims. The network would later contend it was properly reporting on allegations that were newsworthy.

Critics of the network and other media observers expressed disappointment about the deal.

On Twitter, liberal writer Molly Jong-Fast highlighted an article noting that Fox would not be required to apologize and added, “This is why a lot of us feel like Fox won.”

“What you didn’t get was an apology,” anchor George Stephanopoulos told Dominion’s CEO John Poulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Wednesday.

Poulos argued that Dominion felt it had got “accountability” in the settlement.

Rupert Murdoch, Fox stars were spared a turn in the witness box

The potential trial drew enormous attention in part because of the possibility of some of the biggest names at Fox — including its driving force, Rupert Murdoch — testifying.

Murdoch was set to be one of the first witnesses called by Dominion, while network stars Carlson, Sean Hannity and Maria Bartiromo were also expected to be called.

Murdoch, in a deposition, had previously agreed that some of his hosts had “endorsed” theories around voter fraud. Hannity, also in a deposition, had said he did not believe Dominion had rigged vote counts “for one second.”

The pretrial process also turned up texts and other private messages that were damaging in a more general sense. The most memorable may have been a text from Carlson — who presents himself as a fervently pro-Trump host — saying “I hate him [Trump] passionately.”

Fox’s vast settlement at least buys the avoidance of further awkward questioning under oath.

Legal fights are not over

The huge settlement announced on Wednesday does not bring an end to legal battles over the 2020 election — on either side.

Fox is also being sued by another election company, Smartmatic, which is seeking around $2.7 billion. Fox contends the two cases are very different and that it will vigorously defend itself if the Smartmatic case eventually comes to trial.

Meanwhile, a lawyer for Smartmatic said in a Tuesday statement, “Dominion’s litigation exposed some of the misconduct and damage caused by Fox’s disinformation campaign. Smartmatic will expose the rest.”

On the other side of the legal ledger, Dominion still has ongoing cases against a number of entities and individuals including Newsmax, One America News Network (OAN), Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Powell, and MyPillow founder Mike Lindell. 

Those entities and individuals deny wrongdoing.

The money is huge for Dominion — not so much for Fox

The huge settlement, even allowing for lawyers’ fees, will be a massive payday for Dominion.

Dominion is a private company, so its finances are not as transparent as publicly traded corporations. But its annual revenues have been estimated at around $40 million.

It’s a very different story at Fox. Critics hoping that the company will be hobbled by the settlement will be disappointed.

Fox News is part of Fox Corp., which recorded a net profit of $321 million just in the final quarter of last year.

The financial markets reflected how slight the damage will be for the corporation. 

On Wednesday, the first full day of trading after the settlement, shares in Fox Corp. were down only slightly, having fallen by approximately one-quarter of a percent at 3 p.m. Eastern.

The case is highly unlikely to burst the Fox bubble

Fox News, launched in 1996, was underestimated at its genesis and has defied various predictions of doom ever since.

It remains, by a considerable distance, the most watched cable news channel.

On Monday evening, Carlson had the network’s highest rated show, pulling in almost 3.2 million viewers. Other Fox shows aside, no other cable news offering surpassed MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show, which was roughly 700,000 viewers shy of Carlson.

The network gave perfunctory coverage to the Dominion settlement, even as rival cable networks and other news sites splashed the big news.

To many people, Fox’s conduct around the election-related conspiracy theories was indefensible.

But it’s a massive stretch to imagine its audience will drift away in any significant numbers — if at all.

For the past several months, many of us have written about this case. Court documents contained any number of interesting revelations. (Confirmations?)

A Fox reporter fact-checked claims made by lawyers for President Trump. A network executive reacted badly to this. He told the reporter that she needed to do a better job of “respecting our audience.”

A popular host said, “You don’t piss off the base.” (That is not journalism, of course. It is something else.)

One of the executives worried that viewers were switching to the Newsmax channel, in search of even wilder fare than Fox was offering. The exec issued a warning: “Do not ever give viewers a reason to turn us off. Every topic and guest must perform.”

“Perform” is the word, really.

On the eve of trial, Fox settled with Dominion.

Over the years, many of my preferred candidates have lost an election. But all of those men took their losses like men. And then there was Trump.

His ego — resembling that of a spoiled brat — could not take losing. So he cried “Rigged!” and inspired what seemed half the country to do the same. He plunged the whole country into a drama so that his ego could be assuaged.

What if he had simply conceded the election? Greeted the president-elect in the Oval Office? Attended his successor’s inauguration? All of those normal things? The country would have been spared this drama. Instead, lies, spawned by Trump, spread through America like a poison.

Post-2016, many people mocked the idea that “character is destiny” or even that character matters at all. But it matters a great deal. It is practically the whole ballgame. And Trump’s character — and what it wakened in others — has had a terrible effect on our country.

(Think of January 6 alone.)

You can appeal to better angels or worse angels. Both exist, both hover. Trump appeals to the worse ones — the worst ones — time after time. Leadership matters. More than I ever knew, frankly. We are supposed to be a nation of individualists, a “bottom-up” society, not a “top-down” one. And yet — leadership makes a huge difference. Disturbingly huge, in my view.

Trump always cries “Rigged!” — sometimes in advance. He cried “Rigged!” when he lost primaries and caucuses in 2016. In the general election, he said that, if he lost, it would be because of a rigged election, only. He said the same in 2020 — during the general election. And, of course, we saw what he did after.

“Rigged!” is his game. It’s his move. Why do millions have to cooperate with him? They make it their game, their move, too.

Obviously, there are Trumpist true-believers — people who trust his every word. But many people are “jes’ playin’.” I’m talking about people in politics and in the media. They say one thing in private and another in public. They keep gullible, deceived people, gullible and deceived. They keep people who are aboil, aboil.

They have a lot to answer for.

Some of my nearest and dearest are Trumpist true-believers. And when I see people who know better — who are jes’ playin’ — fuel their false fire, I myself boil.

Many of us in journalism have had the experience of hearing people say one thing in green rooms — something truthful, something realistic — and a completely different thing on the air. Or they say truthful things during commercial breaks and untruthful things when back on the air. Like an actor slipping into a role. Red hat off, red hat on.

“I am not only witty in myself,” says Falstaff, “but the cause that wit is in other men.” Trump is not only deceitful in himself, he is the cause of deceit, or he prompts deceit, in a great many others. This is extraordinary. Or ordinary? People really do follow leaders, for good or ill, whether we like it or not.

Trumpers say that anti-Trumpers don’t respect Trump voters. Many don’t, surely. But who has less respect for Trump voters than Trumpist elites? You don’t lie to people you respect. You don’t keep them in ignorance — especially when the effects are so deleterious.

It is not Shakespeare, but I do think of a song lyric (Jerry Herman): “Who else but a bosom buddy will sit down and level, will give you the devil, will sit down and tell you the truth?”

I’m glad that Dominion Voting Systems, Smartmatic, et al., are standing up for themselves. I’m glad they are not taking defamation lying down. In standing up, they are benefitting themselves, of course. But they are also benefitting society at large, I think.

It is very, very hard to win a libel or defamation suit in America. The standards are very high, very strict. Renata Adler wrote an instructive book about this. She was a student of the Sharon and Westmoreland cases. (Sidenote: I met her at Bill Buckley’s house one night.) Evidently, Dominion had Fox dead to rights. The material in those court filings was, again — head-spinning.

There is an old expression: “You are what you eat.” I have taken to saying, “You are the media you consume.” Consume wisely, and widely, if possible. A little Right, a little Left, a little center. A little conservative, a little populist, a little progressive — on and on. It’s hard to maintain a healthful media diet. For one thing, who has the time? (And fewer have the inclination, I feel sure.) But still . . .
Dan Butcher

Dan Butcher is the editor and publisher of High Plains Pundit. Dan is also the host of the popular High Plains Pundit Podcast.

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