Will the Fox News Settlement with Dominion Change the Network?

A political scientist weighs the odds that the $787.5 million payout will alter the way Fox reports the news

[Editor's note: This story was updated on April 25 to add a response about Tucker Carlson leaving the network.]

More than a year after Dominion Voting Systems filed suit against Fox News because of the network’s false stories about the integrity of the company’s voting machines, Fox has reached an out of court settlement with Dominion. Some settlements in civil suits are reached without either side acknowledging fault. But Fox has agreed to pay Dominion $787.5 million in damages and said in a statement that it acknowledged that “certain claims” it made about Dominion were “false.”

Tufts Now spoke with Jeffrey M. Berry, political science professor and co-author with Sarah Sobieraj, another Tufts professor, of the book The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility, about the implications of the settlement and its likely impacts on the Fox News business model and coverage of future elections. Berry is the John Richard Skuse, Class Of 1941, Professor of Political Science at Tufts.

Tufts Now: How has this lawsuit impacted Fox News so far?

Jeffrey Berry: Dominion’s suit against Fox has been a major embarrassment for the network. During pre-trial discovery Fox was forced to turn over texts and emails that show that producers and hosts knew that there was no fraud caused by Dominion’s voting machines. Most conspicuously, Fox invited Sidney Powell, a lawyer who was making wild charges against Dominion, onto its programs multiple times.

Yet Fox host Tucker Carlson wrote in private to his fellow host, Laura Ingraham, that “Sidney Powell is lying.” Ingraham responded to Carlson by saying “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy [Guiliani].”

Among the many incredulous claims made by Powell was her charge that Dominion changed the software on its machines at the request of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Although this is a landmark settlement against Fox—it has never admitted wrongdoing on anything near this scale—this episode will do little, if anything, to change Fox’s behavior.

What was the focus of Dominion’s suit against Fox?

Despite Fox’s defeat, it’s important to keep in mind that this was a suit about defamation, and not about accuracy in news reporting. To protect our rights under the First Amendment, the courts have established an extremely high bar for a plaintiff to gain a court decision supporting defamation.

The legal criteria for defamation by a news organization is that what it says must be the result of actual “malice.” This means that there must be “a reckless disregard for the truth” in the assembly and dissemination of a story about a person or organization.

Fox can continue to opine about politicians, movements, and institutions with harsh, even incendiary language, as it always has. When Tucker Carlson called Joe Biden a “senile hermit,” there was no danger Fox could be successfully sued by Biden. It’s clear that Carlson was expressing an opinion and politicians are fair game under rules of free speech.

With the Dominion case, however, the company claimed that Fox damaged its business with its claims of fraud. Defamation law, in the abstract, makes sense. We don’t want to live in a society where we can’t say what we want about our elected leaders.

But neither do we want to live in a society where one company can make up lies, repeat them over and over, and damage another’s company’s ability to compete in the marketplace.

What does this suit say about Fox’s business model? As a result of the settlement, will viewers see any changes in how the network operates?

Fox can’t change, because its business model is built around caustic, abrasive, and insulting treatment of liberals and others it does not like. As Sarah Sobieraj and I argue in our book The Outrage Industry, cable news and talk radio are built around content intended to make viewers and listeners angry.

Fox wants its audience agitated at the latest statements and actions by those on the other side of the ideological spectrum. It is this anger that brings the audience back the next day.  

Generating content that retains its viewers requires that Fox continually develop stories that are compelling and disturbing to its audience. When Tucker Carlson called the January 6th insurrection a “false flag” operation instigated by the deep state, it may have struck most Americans as ridiculous. Yet Carlson’s claim fits with the world view of many Fox viewers, who regard the government with enormous mistrust and like to hear evidence that confirms their fears.

In line with the skepticism and alienation of its audience, Fox hosts convey that they won’t be cowed, that they’ll tell the unvarnished truth, and that they’ll cross the lines of woke propriety without fear. To provoke viewers in this manner requires stories that create fury. This is Fox’s business—it can’t make money trying to be the New York Times.

Before the settlement, company communications were made public in which staff members and on-air talent expressed doubt in the network’s 2020 election reporting. Is there any reason to think the network’s ratings will take a hit because of these emails and texts? Will it impact their relationships with advertisers?

Fox’s audience may seem relatively small. Tucker Carlson, the most popular of the network’s prime time hosts, draws around 3 million viewers for his 8 p.m. nightly telecast. By way of comparison, the three broadcast networks draw about 20 million viewers a night.

Yet cumulatively, over a month’s time, 40 percent of Americans say that they watched Fox at some point. And those who watch Fox trust it. Fully 78 percent of Fox viewers express relative confidence in its accuracy.

What we know from the emails and texts within the company is that Fox was terrified of losing audience in the wake of President Trump’s claim of a rigged election. For it to contradict the election deniers was to risk losing viewers to Newsmax and One America News Network. The modest movement of Fox viewers to these small competitors stopped when Fox began to aggressively give airtime to election deniers like Powell and Giuliani.

Fox has little to worry about with advertisers leaving as brand name companies fled the network and its continuing controversies years back. In addition to the advertising it does retain, the network earns money from the fees cable providers must give to it to carry Fox programs. Fox News is typically part of basic cable packages, meaning that if you have cable in your home, you’re paying for Fox whether you watch it or not.

Fox will not only survive the Dominion settlement, it will continue to thrive, making money and doing its best to stir outrage.

Since we first spoke, Fox has let Tucker Carlson go. Will this affect the network’s ratings?

Personalities do matter in terms of ratings but, ultimately, Fox’s programming is formulaic. Recall that Bill O’Reilly was Fox’s most popular prime-time host until he was fired in the wake of multiple sexual harassment allegations. He was replaced by Carlson and Carlson then became even more popular. Fox will use sophisticated audience measuring instruments to test out a number of potential hosts and then choose the one who looks most promising. In terms of Fox’s outrage orientation, this new host will be under pressure to prove that he or she is just as provocative as Carlson.  

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