After $787.5m Dominion settlement, what’s next for Fox?

Man holding anti-Fox sign

While Fox avoided a lawsuit, scholars believe the Dominion settlement puts the network in a tricky position with its audience.

A last-minute $787.5m (£634m) deal allowed Fox News to avoid a lengthy and potentially embarrassing defamation trial with US voting machine company Dominion.

In its $1.6bn lawsuit, Dominion alleged that Fox had damaged its business by spreading false claims that its machines had helped rig the 2020 election in Joe Biden’s favour.

While Fox swiftly declared the settlement a victory, the media empire was also forced to admit that “certain claims” it made about Dominion were false, potentially putting it at odds with former President Donald Trump and vast swathes of its audience ahead of the upcoming 2024 election.

The network, controlled by 92-year-old billionaire mogul Rupert Murdoch, must also still contend with a second, similar lawsuit from another voting technology firm, Smartmatic, seeking an even larger sum of $2.7bn.

But whether or not any of this changes the way Fox and other media networks operate, however, remains to be seen.

Nicole Hemmer, an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University who specializes in media, conservatism and electoral politics, told the BBC that while Fox saved itself from a public trial, it had already been harmed by court documents that revealed the inner workings of the network .

They showed network executives were worried that they were losing viewers angry over Fox’s decision to correctly declare that Mr Trump had lost in the crucial state of Arizona to President Biden. Internal communications also showed that the network was scared of losing viewers to far-right competitors One America Network (OAN) and Newsmax.

They also showed that behind the scenes, the biggest names at the network were not convinced. Mr. Murdoch wrote in an email that the then-US president was going “increasingly mad” after election day. And Tucker Carlson, host of the network’s top-rated programme, said he hated Mr Trump “passionately” and that his presidency had been a disaster.

“So much of what we saw behind the scenes…were the kinds of political pressures that made it impossible for Fox News to report accurately on the election,” Ms Hemmer said. “And those pressures aren’t going away.”

Looking forward to the 2024 election, Ms Hemmer said she still expects misinformation to make its way into the channel’s political coverage.

“It’s pretty hard to prove defamation in the US,” she says. “All Fox has to do is continue to spread election lies, conspiracies and falsehoods without naming a particular company or person, and there’s no risk of lawsuits in the future.”

The settlement “will just make them better about not putting things on paper behind the scenes”, Ms Hemmer added.

Similarly, American University media and politics professor Jane Hall said that it would be difficult for Fox to escape the “ugly embrace” the network had with Donald Trump if it wanted to avoid suffering in the ratings war against its further-right competitors.

“The reason that they promoted the lie about the 2020 election, even though their hosts have been found to have believed he was lying – they knew their ratings would go down, and they’d be abandoned by Trump loyalists,” she said.

When the BBC approached Fox about claims that the company feared its ratings would go down, a company spokesperson sent Nielsen data showing the company never relinquished its spot at the top of the ratings for all of 2020 and 2021.

In the shorter term, Fox may also have to face a defamation lawsuit from Smartmatic, another electronic voting machine company. It says Fox knowingly aired more than 100 false statements against the company in a bid to “capitalize on President Trump’s popularity by inventing a story” around the 2020 election.

“[Fox] had an obvious problem with their story. They needed a villain,” the complaint reads. “Without any true villain, the accused invented one. Defendants decided to make Smartmatic the villain in their story.”

Among the false claims, the complaint alleges, was that the Delaware-registered company was Venezuelan and under the control of “corrupt dictators from socialist countries”.

Smartmartic also accused Fox of characterizing it as having played a key role in rigging the election nationally, even though its technology was only used in Los Angeles County.

In a statement sent to the BBC, a Fox spokeswoman said the company was “ready to defend this case surrounding extremely newsworthy events” when the case goes to trial, probably in 2025.

In court documents filed on April 17 this year, Fox also objected to many of the assertions in Smartmatic’s case. It has called Smartmatic’s damages claims “implausible” and “disconnected from reality”.

Trump Signs

Various other news outlets are facing litigation over claims made about the 2020 election.

Fox has previously said it was “confident” it would prevail in the case, but Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, told the BBC that Smartmatic probably has “similar information” to that which allowed Dominion to build the “very strong case” that ultimately resulted in a settlement.

Legal experts believe that Fox will again try to avoid a potentially even more damaging trial. “Fox may need to be serious about a settlement,” he said. “It may be that Smartmatic has an even stronger case.”

Ms Hemmer, for her part, said that Fox would have to decide whether settlements and legal challenges had simply “become the cost of doing business”.

“There’s going to be, I think, a calculation: how much does it cost us with our audience if we don’t spread these conspiracies, versus how much it will cost us in court if we do,” she said.

While the well-resourced Fox might be able to afford another large settlement, smaller outlets such as Newsmax and OAN may not be able to weather similar legal storms. Both are also facing lawsuits from Dominion and Smartmatic.

The company belonging to election denier and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was forced to file for bankruptcy last year following a slew of defamation cases.

“I think we’re beginning to see situations where plaintiffs are holding defendants accountable. I think judges, judges and the public are alert to falsehoods,” Mr Tobias said.

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