Fox News Surrenders in Historic Loss
They lied. They got busted. Now they pay.
Below is my new piece on the precedent set by Fox News backing down and paying out $787 million over election lies.
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Here’s something we don’t report every day:
The system worked.
And it made history.
Now, in law, that’s often called precedent — which is why Fox News’ payout for 2020 election lies is unprecedented.
The company settled the blockbuster case brought by the Dominion voting machine company.
That’s the most important fact about Fox chief Rupert Murdoch backing down, at the literal last minute, with everyone gathered in court to put Fox News on trial — this payout by Fox is the largest, most costly penalty in the modern history of defamation cases.
It’s also larger than the vast majority of civil cases, period, as this breakdown shows:
The Fox payout is so large, it dwarfs typical payouts even for settlements over deaths (which is why one million dollars barely registers as a bar graph above).
The penalty wipes out over 15% of the company's annual profits.
As a business matter, the Trump-allied lies about the 2020 election, which were peddled primarily from Nov. 2020 to Jan. 2021 and fueled the insurrection, have now cost the company far more than it ever “made” the company (in ratings and related profits).
That’s the kind of math that Murdoch, and his corporate board, understand. (Watch our MSNBC coverage here.)
A top Dominion lawyer put it simply after triumphing where so many others have failed to corner Murdoch:
"The truth matters. Lies have consequences.”
That is not always true, in life, politics or even court.
And honestly, it’s been fascinating to see how this case snowballed.
It started as a “business battle” between a company caught up in Trump’s far wider effort to stage a coup. Then it grew stronger in discovery, as once-secret evidence of Fox’s knowing and intentional deceit accrued, and went public. Then it seemed destined for a high-stakes trial, with Dominion holding out for the kind of money that Murdoch had never ponied up.
And then, the sheer reality of that trial — the pressure, the exposure, and a possible loss running over a billion dollars — made Fox blink right as opening arguments wee about to start.
Where’s the line?
This outcome marks a new line in the sand.
It clearly and publicly shows the kind of lies and claims that will be punished, a message to Fox, which is paying, and to every other person in media considering going down that road.
That includes some of the Trump allies who are facing separate, ongoing lawsuits by this same team of lawyers for their public claims, including Trump lawyers Giuliani and Powell. So while this Fox case is over, and legally separate, there may be further penalties (or trials) for similar claims. And I can tell you, in media, people know what Fox got busted for, including false claims like:
Nancy Pelosi controls Dominion (Sidney Powell)
Voter fraud could swing the outcome “in a number of states” (Rudy Giuliani)
“The votes in Dominion..are counted in foreign countries.” (Trump)
Each of those claims were made on Fox’s air, along with many more like them.
Autocrats Need Propaganda
The money is what makes this case big, and what gets a corporation’s attention. This is also also how lawsuits work in America — you can’t file a suit to put someone in prison, or force people do something (in most cases). When a citizen files suit, it is for a money penalty. Most of that money comes via settlements, most cases don’t go to trial. That’s the format, but this is about so much more than money.
As one lawyer put it, this is the first big case to result in accountability for the election lies. Those lies are different than the insurrection itself, or cases the government brings (which can lead to prison).
At a time of rising authoritarianism, the binding limits on lies matter.
Across history, autocrats do not tend to allow a free press or factual reports. That is a proven threat to their power. They typically try to (a) control or end the free press, and (b) supplant it with their own propaganda.
So this record-breaking court-sanctioned penalty is about more than dinging Fox or enriching one of its propaganda victims. It’s also about patrolling extreme political lies before it’s too late.
P.S. Did you know this penalty was so unprecedented? I’ll respond to some of you in the comments per usual…