Fox News settlement is great for Dominion – not so great for the rest of us
Sean Hannity at 2015 CPAC / photo by Gage Skidmore

“Damn!” That’s the instant reaction I had when I saw the breaking news alert that Dominion Voting Systems had settled its lawsuit with Fox “News.”

Like many of you, I was hoping to see the network’s managers and top anchors have to answer in person, under oath, and on the record, about the many lies they told in the days after the 2020 election.

Looking at it from Dominion’s perspective, it’s a great outcome. For a relatively small company, estimated to be worth between $30 million and $80 million, a $787.5 million settlement soothes over a lot of reputational damage.

The company’s top lawyer said Dominion was looking for accountability: $787 million dollars is a LOT of accountability. Dominion had already won the PR battle, exposing reams of emails, texts and oral depositions that easily proved Fox didn’t believe Trump’s election lies, yet they fed the lies to their conservative audience for fear of losing viewers to more conservative news networks. It’s doubtful that a trial would have made Fox look any worse than it already does.

But it sure would have been enjoyable to see experienced plaintiff’s lawyers taking apart smug anchors who ignore all journalistic ethics and then have the gall to try to hide behind the First Amendment. Those of us who have despised Fox “News” from the very beginning are robbed of the chance to finally see its comeuppance.

Fox both wins and loses. It must write a very large check. But it doesn’t have to apologize, doesn’t have to go on air and say anything about it. All Fox did was issue a weaselly statement: “We acknowledge the Court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false.”

We acknowledge? Well, how very kind of them to nod in the direction of truth. Certain claims? That’s not what the judge said in a pretrial ruling. He wrote, “… it is CRYSTAL clear that none of the Statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true.”

News organizations make mistakes sometimes. Anytime in my career when we made a mistake, we admitted it on air. We read retractions as many times as the mistakes aired. We offered apologies. We figured viewers understand that mistakes will happen. As much as I hated it when we screwed up, I felt that admitting a mistake ultimately builds trust with viewers.

Not that Fox made a “mistake” here. It was a deliberate campaign to build a false narrative, even though the top dogs didn’t believe any of it.

We all want more accountability, but I guess a lawsuit can only do so much. Moving forward, the real accountability rests with Fox viewers and advertisers. If enough viewers abandoned them as an untrustworthy source of news, and enough advertisers fled for fear of being associated with a news operation that lies, then we would have some real accountability. But if viewers continue to watch, and advertisers continue to write checks, I doubt anything substantively changes. Fox will continue to feed its audience what it wants to hear, rather than what it needs to hear.

One more quote from the Fox statement after the settlement: “We hope our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion amicably … allows the country to move forward from these issues.”

I can think of a better way to help the country move on, and it’s taught in every first semester journalism class along with the five W’s and the H. Tell your viewers the truth. Get all sides of a story. If a public official is peddling conspiracy theories, ask for evidence before you put them on the air. Challenge those in power. And if you screw up, be courageous enough to go on air and admit it.

Ohio Capital Journal is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Ohio Capital Journal maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor David DeWitt for questions: Follow Ohio Capital Journal on Facebook and Twitter.