Yesterday Fox News settled with Dominion Voting Systems for the staggering sum of $787.5 million. On the eve of a jury trial, Fox’s lawyers threw in the towel for the simple reason that they had no chance of winning, and because $1.6 billion is a lot of money even for rich super villains. The admission that Fox gratuitously lied about Dominion’s voting machines to support former President Donald Trump’s efforts to unlawfully overturn the results of the 2020 election should be a moment of reckoning for the network and those who continue to profit from it—but it won’t lead to much of anything unless we take concerted action to permanently marginalize the network’s venomous propagandists.
Dominion filed its blockbuster defamation lawsuit against Fox in March 2021, seeking $1.6 billion damages, claiming that Fox’s relentless and false impugning of its voting machines led to substantial business and reputational damage. The lawsuit led to the revelation of incredibly damning information for Fox. Most embarrassing were the troves of text messages and emails between prominent hosts, executives and reporters that made it clear that none of them believed the gibberish they were spouting on air about how Dominion had rigged its voting machines to produce votes for now-President Joe Biden, and that nearly everyone in the organization valued catering to viewer fantasies over what they knew perfectly well was the truth – that Biden won the election fair and square.
“The software shit is absurd,” primetime host Tucker Carlson texted a colleague on Nov. 9. He texted Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis on Nov. 21 to tell her that the voting machine claims were “shockingly reckless” and invited her to send proof. “And as you know,” he wrote, “there isn’t.”
Indeed there is not. What happened instead, and what Fox’s settlement proves beyond any doubt, is quite simple—the “fair and balanced” cable news network sent its frosted-haired hosts and reporters on the air every day to tell preposterous lies so that an aspiring tyrant could dismantle America’s system of democracy. They did this in part by creating an elaborate and evidence-free conspiracy about how voting machines were manipulated to produce Democratic votes. Over the years, the network’s executives have become so arrogant as to believe that they can behave with more or less total impunity and a disregard for America’s civic health so comprehensive that they make the fictional TV executives on HBO’s Succession look like model citizens.
Some are disappointed that Dominion ultimately settled when they could have won the lawsuit and soaked Fox for more than a billion dollars. But that’s immaterial—Rupert Murdoch’s company is worth roughly $16 billion, and there are more than enough fabulously rich far-right weirdos out there to bail Fox out of whatever jam they get into.
But the settlement does provide us with a window, however brief, to see Fox News for what it is and to act accordingly. “Too many reporters and commentators have continued to treat Fox as a news organization,” wrote David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt 11 years ago in The Fox News Effect. The danger is that “the rhetoric the network wields as a weapon is filled with violent imagery and demonization.” That has only become more apparent, and more dangerous, in the intervening years.
Scholars have long documented Fox’s malign influence on American public life. Its introduction into media markets is known to increase Republican vote share in elections. GOP political leaders will do or say anything to get positive coverage on Fox, turning our politics into an ugly circus designed to appeal to our basest instincts. When Fox viewers, who are more susceptible to falsehoods and conspiracy theories than non-viewers, are exposed at length to other sources of information, they realize how much the network is lying to them.
But the network’s indefensible behavior in the aftermath of the 2020 election went far beyond its well-established penchant for distortion, division, and fear mongering. It is one thing to tilt coverage relentlessly toward one side and turn prime time over to far-right narcissists and propagandists. It is quite another to deliberately allow your whole network to be enlisted in a seditionist project whose goal was the obliteration of electoral democracy and its replacement by an autocratic, white nationalist cabal featuring the most venal people in the country.
If that doesn’t cross a line, then no such line exists. And we need to make sure that it does. If you haven’t done so already, cut the cord and tell your cable provider why you’re doing it. Stop giving interviews to Fox, stop citing their broadcasts and news articles and stop answering their questions at press conferences. If Fox is playing somewhere in the background, leave the room. Remove the books written by their self-aggrandizing stars from bookstores and libraries. Stop giving their reporters and hosts space in publications devoted to the truth, and blacklist anyone who appears on the network. Don’t hire anyone who ever worked there and isn’t willing to renounce their work publicly. Treat the whole operation like a better-financed and more popular Stormfront.
We can’t go back to business as usual with Fox after these revelations. If they can just fork out some cash and go right back to beaming democracy-wrecking untruths directly into everyone’s living rooms night after night with no other consequences, they are going to do it next election or simply any time they want to.
And next time will be worse.
David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It’s Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.