The $787.5 million that Fox News agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems is the largest publicly known defamation settlement by an American media company. Many who’d hoped that Fox would receive a more severe punishment for knowingly spreading lies about the 2020 election, including the alleged role of Dominion’s voting machines in “stealing” it from Donald Trump, were disappointed by the unexpectedly sudden resolution. Fox did not have to offer an apology or admit to any specific wrongdoing; instead, it issued a short statement acknowledging “the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false” and cynically insisted on its “commitment to the highest journalistic standards.” The payout is only about half of what Dominion had originally sought, and Fox should be able to write much of it off as a cost of doing business—the very profitable business of feeding fantasies to its viewers, as company executives and on-air personalities themselves acknowledged in private text messages following the 2020 election.
As gratifying as it might have been to see a jury pronounce Fox guilty—or to witness Maria Bartiromo, Tucker Carlson, and other purveyors of Trump’s election lies compelled to make public acts of contrition—the settlement shows there can still be a price to pay for knowingly disseminating falsehoods. It also reveals what can happen when evidence comes to public light in the discovery process. As each new damning detail about the network’s post-election deceptions emerged in advance of the expected trial, Fox’s mendacity was further confirmed. Nor was Dominion the only victim of Fox’s bad faith. Smartmatic USA, another voting-machine company, has its own $2.7 billion defamation case pending against the network and is demanding a full retraction of Fox’s false reporting.
Dominion shrewdly built its public case on protecting and preserving the principles of the American democratic tradition—including the importance of journalistic integrity—yet ultimately this was a business dispute between two large companies with a lot of money at stake. Each made careful calculations in arriving at the terms of their settlement. Fox wanted to avoid the likely revelation of even more damaging information in a lengthy trial potentially culminating in a guilty verdict; Dominion wanted to avoid the possibility of a jury ruling against it, or, in the case of victory, being dragged through years of costly appeals by a corporation with $4 billion of cash on hand and a market capitalization of more than $17 billion.