Victory or Defeat? For Some Fox Critics, Defamation Case Was a Split Decision

On the surface, Fox News got pummeled.

Rupert Murdoch, its founder, agreed to a massive settlement of $787.5 million, roughly two-thirds of the Fox Corporation’s net annual income. Fox News was embarrassed by revelations that its anchors privately despised former President Donald J. Trump. And Dominion Voting Systems, the election technology firm derided on Fox airwaves, declared victory Tuesday on the courthouse steps.

Yet for some Murdoch critics, the outcome of this landmark libel case fell short of something to celebrate.

“Rupert Wins Again,” declared the Politico press critic Jack Shafer, who noted Mr. Murdoch’s long history of paying tens of millions of dollars to settle claims of phone hacking, workplace harassment and other ignominies.

“Country lost, democracy lost,” the First Amendment lawyer Martin Garbus wrote in an email, predicting that Tucker Carlson and Maria Bartiromo would be feted by conservatives as “heroes” who “stood up against the liberal world.”

Others lamented what they perceived to be a lost opportunity for a legal reckoning for the misinformation that has poisoned many Americans’ trust in the democratic process.

“Great win for democracy? I don’t know about that,” said the MSNBC host Joy Reid, who told viewers that Fox News “saved their stars from having to take the witness stand and answer questions about all those embarrassing texts and revelations.”

Three-quarters of a billion dollars is no small sum, even for Mr. Murdoch, and Fox is still facing a similar defamation suit from another elections firm, Smartmatic, which has asked for $2.7 billion in damages. (Dominion initially demanded $1.6 billion.) The network has often argued that its newsroom is walled off from ideological forces, but emails revealed in the case made clear that top executives rebuked their own journalists who tried to fact-check Mr. Trump.

Still, Fox News was not required under the terms of the settlement to issue an on-air apology for the baseless claims it aired about Dominion, asserting the company had tried to rig the 2020 presidential election in Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s favor. Of the anchors cited in the lawsuit, all but Lou Dobbs remain employed. And Fox’s public statement on Tuesday about the settlement was hardly an apology.

“We acknowledge the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” the network wrote, adding, with Murdochian defiance, “This settlement reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.” (That line prompted the CNN anchor Jake Tapper to tell his viewers that it was “difficult to say with a straight face.”)

John Poulos, Dominion’s chief executive, praised the outcome.Credit…Pete Marovich for The New York Times

For Dominion, a for-profit company that argued its reputation and future revenues were devastated by Fox’s coverage, the settlement was a win. John Poulos, Dominion’s chief executive, praised the outcome during an interview on Wednesday on ABC News, only to be grilled by the anchor George Stephanopoulos, who pointed out: “What you didn’t get was an apology.”

“There was an acknowledgment — and certainly it’s not the way I wrote it — and I had some conversations with our team, my co-founder and I, and at the end of the day, the court system is really about accountability,” Mr. Poulos replied, a bit haltingly. He added: “For us it was never really about Fox per se. It was about telling the truth, and the media telling the truth.”

His words echoed the remarks of one of Dominion’s lead lawyers, Stephen Shackelford, who argued on Tuesday that the size of the penalty paid by Mr. Murdoch was itself a form of reckoning.

“Money is accountability,” he told reporters, “and we got that today from Fox.”

The view inside Fox News — that the Dominion case was an overblown spectacle fueled by the channel’s dedicated critics — was voiced in part by Howard Kurtz, the network’s media correspondent, who reported the news of the settlement on two afternoon programs on Tuesday. (The case did not merit a mention during the network’s highly watched prime time hours.)

Mr. Kurtz said on the air: “Much of the media was looking forward to six weeks of — frankly, a lot of people in the mainstream media, anti-Fox, rooting for Fox to lose. They’re now going to be deprived of that opportunity and the rest of us get to go home.”

So far, no reporters on Fox News have disclosed the specific $787.5 million figure to the network’s viewers. Mr. Kurtz and others said on the air that while Dominion disclosed a dollar amount, they personally could not confirm it.

On Wall Street, investors appeared mostly unfazed by the outcome. Fox’s stock was down slightly more than 2 percent in Wednesday morning trading. SVB MoffettNathanson, a research firm, wrote in an analyst note on Wednesday that “it isn’t clear there has been much, if any, impact of these lawsuits on Fox News’s viewership and business.”

The note concluded: “The network remains a key growth driver for the overall company.”

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