Fox’s Fake Election News Turned Out To Be Costly – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg*

To the disappointment of those who like a good courtroom drama, the media giant Fox News last week reached an out-of-court settlement in its dispute with the voting equipment company Dominion, for the modest sum of $787.5 million, just hours before opening statements were scheduled to start.

If anything should surprise us, it is that this settlement was not reached long before a trial date was set. And, as much as Americans love the phrase “every American deserves their day in court,” Fox News clearly did not want even an hour in court as it had hardly a leg to stand on, having repeatedly given airtime to Donald Trump’s playbook of outrageous and baseless allegations that Dominion was involved, and deliberately so, in a plot to rig the 2020 presidential election in favor of Joe Biden.

Fox News was saved from public embarrassment and, since Dominion sued for $1.6 billion, the settlement must feel like a basement bargain. Not only because it was less than half the price, but also because some of the organization’s key figures, including Rupert Murdoch and “prize” presenters such as Tucker Carlson — who was sacked on Monday — Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, will not now be questioned under oath by Dominion’s lawyers and have to defend their unsubstantiated allegations.

One could have wished, for the sake of the honest media outlets that serve society by providing it with the truth rather than cheap entertainment motivated by vested interests and vanity, for this case to go all the way in court. It would have done the honest media and, even better, the American people a world of good to watch those who repeated Trump’s lies being force-fed a feast of humble pie, squirming in the witness box as they attempted to justify misleading the public by discrediting the most important and crucial event on the country’s political calendar.

Reaching a settlement was the only smart move by Fox Corp in this sorry saga. Already, in a March 31 pretrial decision, presiding judge Eric Davis made his view clear by ruling in favor of Dominion on some key aspects of the case, writing that: “The evidence developed in this civil proceeding demonstrates that it is CRYSTAL clear that none of the statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true.”

However, settling with Dominion has not ended Fox’s legal woes regarding the defamation of election technology companies, even though it still has a powerful platform and a receptive audience that would love to believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from their beloved Trump. Another global election technology company, Smartmatic, has also filed a defamation suit against Fox and in this case, to which a New York court has recently given the green light, the damages demanded are $2.7 billion.

The striking opening sentence of Smartmatic’s lawsuit sums up the danger faced by today’s societies when it comes to telling the truth, as it felt it necessary to restate: “Two plus two equals four. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 election.”

One of the most twisted notions of our time, much of it advanced and normalized by social media, is that of “post-truth,” as if it is another side of the same coin of truth. The Cambridge Dictionary defines post-truth as “relating to a situation in which people are more likely to accept an argument based on their emotions and beliefs, rather than one based on facts,” as was evidenced by the result of the UK’s Brexit referendum and by Trump’s behavior in office.

It is commonplace that, in politics, as in other walks of life, emotions play an important part in our thought processes and they are capable of overriding rational and logical cost-benefit analysis. Emotions are part of who we are and they affect our decisions. However, there is a massive difference between the emotions involved in our decisions occasionally eclipsing our judgment and an era of non-truth, where half-truths and lies are shoved down our throats daily, as was made plain by Dominion vs. Fox. This case laid bare that certain segments of the media are ready, either for ratings purposes or for advancing their own agendas, to feed the public sheer falsehoods, in this case straight from the contaminated kitchen of Trump and his army of fake news producers.

That Fox at least acknowledged “certain claims about Dominion to be false,” and agreed to pay handsomely for that, should become a landmark event in American politics, media and the relationship between the two. Taking liberties with the truth has consequences and one such consequence was the events of Jan. 6, 2021, when right-wing hooligans, incited by this type of false allegation about a rigged presidential election, took part in a violent and deadly insurrection at the Capitol in Washington. Those who spread the lies that spurred that uprising are as much to blame for the loss of life, injuries and threat to nearly 250 years of American democracy as those who ransacked the very seat of that democracy.

The outcome of this lawsuit, though significant, is far from sufficient and should now set in motion a battle to reverse the dangerous trend that has taken hold in some quarters of American society — especially in the right-wing media and some pseudo think tanks, not to mention politicians — of too conveniently conflating opinion, and even intuition, with facts. To be sure, it is not about objectivity and differences of opinion. Those on the liberal/left of the political spectrum have their own views and ideology that they do their best to promote and they are not always as magnanimous as they should be with views that are not in line with their own. However, this is completely different from constructing an alternative reality based on invented facts and fake news to suit one’s purpose.

Fox News, in the way it handled the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, damaged not only the cause of truth and honesty in broadcasting, but the ability of a society to have a genuine, fact-based, inclusive and respectful debate, which is a cornerstone of any healthy democracy. The hefty cost of this case for Fox, and potentially of the lawsuits to follow, could be a turning point, if not by bringing people to thoroughly internalize that spreading baseless lies is damaging for both the country and the quality and well-being of its society, then at least by regularly calling out and opposing this deplorable activity.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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