Apr 19, 2023

The Fox News settlement.

The Fox News settlement.
Image: WikiMedia Commons 

In a last second deal, Fox News settled with Dominion.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

We're going long on the Dominion-Fox News settlement. Plus, I respond to a reader who says I should stay away from trans issues. 

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Correction & Note.

First, yesterday, we erroneously referred to Matt Walsh as a reporter at The Daily Caller. In fact, Walsh works for The Daily Wire. No secret here: Both are conservative digital publications with a similar ethos and similar names, and I had a brain flub (and my editors missed it).

This is our 80th correction in Tangle's 194-week history and our first correction since March 13. I track corrections and place them at the top of the newsletter in an effort to maximize transparency with readers.

Second, yesterday, we linked to a piece in The Free Press that has been the subject of a lot of controversy. The link appeared in the bolded letters of this sentence:

"Believing that [trans people] all deserve dignity and freedom does not mean you have to think that gender affirming care is always the right medical choice (it often isn’t)"

There have been enough questions about the reliability of that piece that I should have known better than to include a link to it. But I did, and after hearing your feedback I updated it with a link to this op-ed in The New York Post, which I think makes the argument in a much more evidence-based fashion. I regret the original choice, and appreciate those of you who called it out.

Quick hits.

  1. A Russian court denied an appeal by Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who remains imprisoned on charges of spying. (The ruling)
  2. More than 185 people have been killed in Sudan after the fourth consecutive day of fighting in its capital between opposition groups and the military. A previously announced 24-hour ceasefire has failed. (The fighting)
  3. The 84-year-old Kansas City man who shot 16 year-old Ralph Yarl in the head turned himself into police. He was released on bond. Yarl, who is Black, is recovering in the hospital. (The charges)
  4. Meta, the parent company of Facebook, began a round of layoffs today with a focus on technical employees. The layoffs were first reported in March. (The layoffs)
  5. The FDA updated its Moderna and Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine authorizations and will now use a one-shot bivalent vaccine for all doses. (The updates)

Today's story.

The Fox-Dominion settlement. On Tuesday, Fox News agreed to pay Dominion Voting Systems $787.5 million to settle their defamation lawsuit and avoid a trial, marking the largest ever defamation settlement in U.S. history. The voting machine company had sued Fox News for $1.6 billion, arguing that Fox damaged its reputation by airing libelous theories that its equipment had switched votes from Donald Trump to Joe Biden during the 2020 election.

While defamation cases rarely go to trial, the settlement was still dramatic, coming just hours before opening arguments were set to begin. Dominion's lawsuit sought to prove that Fox acted with malice in airing allegations it knew to be false, and would have required Dominion to meet the high standards necessary to win a defamation lawsuit in the United States. Fox News has claimed that it was simply covering newsworthy claims from associates of former President Donald Trump, but Superior Court Judge Eric Davis had already concluded that Fox aired false claims about Dominion.

In court filings, Dominion released volumes of internal emails and text messages between high-ranking Fox executives and some of its most visible on-air personalities. Those messages showed executives and hosts expressing fear that they were losing audience members by not giving air time to claims the election was stolen, despite their belief that the claims were not true.

The internal communications set off months of critical media coverage of the network (Tangle covered them here and here).

Many free speech and defamation experts believed Dominion had a strong case, but were skeptical that they could prove to a jury Fox executives were making explicit decisions about airing libel. A trial could have forced the network's founder Rupert Murdoch and hosts like Tucker Carslon and Sean Hannity to testify.

“The truth matters. Lies have consequences,” Dominion lawyer Justin Nelson said to reporters. Fox said the settlement showed its "continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards. We are hopeful that our decision to resolve this dispute with Dominion amicably, instead of the acrimony of a divisive trial, allows the country to move forward from these issues.”

As of Wednesday morning, it is still unclear what other conditions are included in the $787.5 million settlement, such as Fox would concede any amount of wrongdoing. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times have reported that Fox will not have to make an on-air apology. While Fox acknowledged in a statement “the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” they did not apologize.

The settlement amounts to just over one-quarter of Fox's $2.96 billion of earnings reported last year. Separately, Fox still faces a $2.7 billion lawsuit from Smartmatic USA, another voting machine company which was the subject of similar on-air claims. A judge in that case recently allowed the suit to move forward.

Today, we're going to take a look at some reactions to the settlement from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Many on the left say Fox settled because it was guilty, and some are disappointed that the case didn't go to trial.
  • Some question whether Fox learned its lesson and wonder how it will act going forward.
  • Others argue Fox lost this battle but has won the war.

In Slate, Justin Peters speculated on why Fox settled — and what we can take away from this.

However it came to be, the settlement was "a real shock" to reporters who expected a long and "probably comical trial" to expose Fox broadcast’s "blatant lies" alleging Dominion had somehow manipulated the 2020 election. The settlement "doesn't destroy" the alternative universe Fox was in, "it just makes it a little bit more expensive for Fox News to live on its farthest-out edges," Peters wrote. "While the network may now think twice about letting the absolute biggest loons come on the air to tell the absolute stupidest lies, it would be foolhardy to presume that this settlement will catalyze any meaningful crisis of conscience at Fox HQ."

With the 2024 presidential election in sight, "it’s a safe bet that Fox News will still spend the next 19 months doing what it does best: building multiday-episode arcs out of isolated anecdotes and unwarranted inference, demonizing liberals and the left while pretending that the right is under constant siege, and working its viewers into crisis states over minor cultural controversies," he wrote. "Fox News might now think twice about definitively crossing the line into actionable defamation, but that’s an outcome that the network can learn to live with."

In The New York Times, Michelle Goldberg said Fox News "had to settle."

The settlement is "deeply disappointing" but "not surprising" because Fox "had no viable defense," Goldberg said. "Part of Fox’s sinister on-air brilliance is the way it encases its audience in a comprehensive alternative reality," Golberg wrote. Now, for once, "the network would be forced to account for itself outside the right-wing bubble. How it would possibly do so was a matter of great suspense." The judge had "already ruled" it was "crystal clear" Fox had lied about Dominion.

Judge Eric Davis also "prohibited Fox from arguing that the network was merely reporting on allegations made by Donald Trump and his lawyers, which Fox contended were newsworthy whether or not they were true." This meant the case "would turn not on whether Fox had aired defamatory falsehoods, which Davis determined it had, but on whether, in airing defamatory falsehoods, Fox had displayed 'actual malice' — essentially, reckless disregard for the truth." Dominion presented "overwhelming" evidence for that reckless disregard during discovery.

In The Atlantic, David A. Graham said Fox lost the battle "but won the war."

"It isn’t often that winning $787.5 million is an underwhelming result. But then again, the defamation case of the century doesn’t come around often," Graham said. The result is "costly but bearable" for Fox, whose "primacy within right-wing media has been restored" while its "competitors have faded" since the 2020 election. Dominion's choice to settle "comes at a great disappointment to many critics of Fox," though it is "probably a smart financial decision."

"For the critics, this case was about democracy and disinformation and provided an opportunity to hold Fox accountable for years of broadcasting hogwash. For Dominion, it was primarily about business," Graham said. "No matter how lofty the language its spokespeople used, the company didn’t sue to fix the American media landscape." Still, Dominion did the public a service by showing the public Tucker Carlson hated Donald Trump and knew lawyer Sidney Powell was lying, while even Rupert Murdoch "deemed Trump's lies about the election being stolen 'crazy stuff.'"

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right are happy about the settlement, and criticize coverage of it.
  • Some say the settlement is a win-win for everyone, avoiding any infringement on press freedom but holding Fox responsible.
  • Others call out networks criticizing Fox News who have also misled their viewers.

In The Washington Examiner, Quin Hillyer said the "Fox News settlement is the best result for everybody."

"A bad precedent could have been set if the case had reached a verdict for either side. Without a settlement, there was almost no possible outcome that would have avoided great mischief down the line," Hillyer wrote. "Fox was wrong" in how it presented Trump's "lies that the 2020 election was stolen," and if they had escaped a trial without a punishment, "then unscrupulous media outlets far and wide would have taken the result as a green light for pernicious behavior."

Yet, a decision against Fox would have narrowed "First Amendment protections in ways antithetical to freedom," Hillyer wrote. "If the Supreme Court eventually ruled a news outlet liable for defamation for material (1) presented as opinion rather than as hard facts (2) by guests rather than by the actual personnel of the outlet, (3) when the guests literally represented the president of the United States, (4) arguing that the very workings of constitutional republicanism were at stake, and (5) without any evidence of the news team’s actual animus against the allegedly defamed subject, then press freedoms would be far more parlous than for decades they had been assumed to be."

In RedState, the blogger Bonchie mocked CNN for being "furious" that Fox News was able to settle.

"You’d think nearly a billion dollars in damages would be enough to satiate, but CNN is really, really upset that this ended up not going to trial. Oliver Darcy and Alyson Camerota took to the airwaves in the aftermath and rhetorically shook their fists at the sky," Bonchie wrote. "It feels pretty weird to be dunking on CNN given that Fox News did actually take a massive blow here. $787.5 million is a ton of money, even for a large, national news outlet. Yet, the hosts over on the liberal network are just so absurd that they always manage to outpace reality."

CNN's Darcy "actually says" that going to trial "would have been a trial balloon for 'democracy.' What does that even mean?" Bonchie asked. "This is the United States of America. Even when free speech turns into defamation, it’s not a threat to democracy. To assert that is outright delusional." In the end, this was not "about settling a dispute" for CNN, it was "about trying to destroy Fox News, the network that constantly dominates CNN in the ratings." Here's an idea for them: "Instead of constantly trying to get ahead by silencing other networks, how about the executives over at CNN grow a backbone and start firing the overpaid, unpopular hosts that populate the lineup."

The Spectator's Stephen Miller said Fox "misled" their audience, but they are "far from the only network with an integrity problem."

"Take the 'last honest news man' Jake Tapper, who fell oddly silent when it was revealed his former boss at CNN was working side by side with former New York governor Andrew Cuomo during his much heralded Covid press conferences," Miller wrote. At MSNBC, they are still "trying to find Joy Reid's bigoted time-traveling hackers, and Rachel Maddow still hasn't come up with the Trump tax returns she promised." Nicolle Wallace is yet to answer for "promoting bogus Russia narratives fed to her by Hamilton 68."

There are even "fresh allegations of plagiarism against Medhi Hasan." Maybe former Biden press secretary and now MSNBC talking head Jen Psaki "can restore some gravitas," Miller quipped. "So while other networks will no doubt take a victory lap over Fox’s sloppiness, perhaps they can start by cleaning their own houses out. It would be a good start, and a benefit to everyone in the audience. Alas, the circus never folds its tents. It just packs up and moves to the next destination."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. You can also leave a comment.

  • This is a good outcome for the press and for Dominion.
  • I'm very glad Dominion filed this lawsuit, and grateful for how much we learned about Fox News.
  • It's hard to say what the long-term impact on Fox will be, but the network got what it deserved.

If you had told me a few months ago Fox was going to settle, I wouldn't have been surprised at all. The revelations from discovery alone were a huge hit to the network's reputation, and a trial featuring Murdoch or top personalities getting grilled by Dominion's lawyers would have been incredibly embarrassing (and a media circus).

But now? After waiting long enough for its reputation to be damaged by the exposed texts and emails, now Fox settles? Given the timing, it was a little surprising.

On the outcome, Hillyer's argument (under "What the right is saying") resonated with me in a lot of ways. We avoided any potential ruling that could have limited press freedom, which is obviously something I'm happy about. Yet we also saw a real punishment for Fox News for knowingly lying to its audience, along with real damage to the reputations of its hosts, whose texts and emails were leaked in a way that exposes their lack of credibility. There is an angle here where this is a win-win.

As for Fox, I'm of two minds about what this means going forward. On the one hand, you might expect this to be a lesson for the network on how to handle egregiously false stories like Dominion voting machines flipping votes. Obviously, there were real consequences, and Smartmatic's trial is just getting going so more could be coming. On the other hand, Fox’s audience seems to have totally rebounded, and they are still the top dogs. As for the cash, Murdoch is said to have paid $1.7 billion to his second wife when they divorced in 1999 — which puts the $787 million settlement into perspective.

In the end, maybe Fox decided to cut bait when reality started to settle in. As Slate's Justin Peters noted (under "What the left is saying"), Fox faced a majority non-white jury that their lawyers probably suspected would be hard to overcome. That, paired with the sense that Murdoch, Hannity, Carlson, or any other top dog at Fox could imminently be called to testify was probably cause for some sleepless nights.

For Dominion, it's hard to see this as anything but a win. Not only did they get a massive payday, but a judge put in writing that it was "CRYSTAL clear that none of the statements [by Fox] relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true." All of the texts and emails are now in the public record, and although Dominion did not get an apology, they did get Fox's lawyers to publicly acknowledge the network had lied about Dominion on the air.

Of course, it's hard to know what this does for actual Fox viewers. I watch the network for the purposes of producing this newsletter, but I've never been a fan of Fox (or any other cable news channel, really). Many Fox viewers will find comfort, as Stephen Miller did (under "What the right is saying"), in opining that the primetime hosts from other networks are just as corrupt. It’s obviously true that news media has reliability issues, and I’m not going to get into which side’s unreliability is worse. I write about issues with news media regularly; I started Tangle exactly because of those issues.

More to the point, though, is whether any diehard Fox viewers will actually see or hear any of this news. What Fox did was egregiously wrong, and the network has steadfastly avoided any mention of the lawsuit on-air. It’s not required to apologize, and I’m sure it has plenty of fans who seldom leave the comfort of its channel or website.

In the end, I think Fox got what it deserved. It aired some of the most egregious lies in network television history, it did so knowingly, and it deluded its audience for the cynical reason of trying to keep them from abandoning ship. It got sued, looked as if it would lose, and settled for a lot of money. Along the way, we had it reaffirmed (again) that the 2020 voting machines weren't corrupted. That's a win for anyone interested in a responsible press and fair elections.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Why do you think it is appropriate for you, who as far as I know is a straight, cis-gender white dude, to be writing about attacks on trans people?

— Deborah from Detroit, Michigan

Tangle: I'll be honest: I find this line of questioning really frustrating. I get it from a few readers — often liberals — basically any time I write about any difficult or controversial issue. I've been told not to write about abortion because I'm not a woman, not to write about race because I'm not Black, and even not to write about Biden's age because I have no idea what being a senior is like (I was an ageist for this piece).

Conservatives do it, too. Just yesterday, a conservative wrote that I can't possibly understand the threat of transgender ideology because I don't have kids in grade school. Previously, conservatives have implored me not to write about the military because I am not a veteran (you start to realize how many things you are not when you write about politics). If I only ever wrote about issues that directly related to my demographic, my "lane" would be writing about white, male, millennial Jews from Philadelphia. I think that framework is counterproductive and silly.

It'd be one thing to take this line of argument if we did pieces on abortion without quoting women or pieces on trans issues without quoting trans people or pieces on race without quoting Black people — but we never do that.

More to the point: This can't coexist with another popular dictate from the left, which is that "silence is violence" and being an ally means speaking up. So which is it? Am I supposed to step into the ring on these issues, or am I supposed to shut my mouth? Or am I only allowed to share my opinion when my views align neatly with the left?

These issues obviously affect people to different degrees, and that should always be acknowledged. Laws on how doctors can treat trans people clearly have a much bigger impact on trans people than they do on me. But on some level, they impact all of us, and I don't think anyone should be excluded from the conversation based on their gender, race, sexuality, or any other immutable characteristics.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Blindspot Report.

Once a week, we present the Blindspot Report from our partners at Ground News, an app that tells you the bias of news coverage and what stories people on each side are missing.

The left missed a story about the latest Senate GOP report, which raises the possibility of two lab leaks that triggered Covid-19.

The right missed a story about Missouri House Republicans moving to defund all public libraries.

Under the radar.

In the midst of the latest revelations from the leak of intelligence documents on Discord, The Washington Post is reporting the existence of a high-altitude spy drone that China's military is planning to deploy. The drone travels at three times the speed of sound, according to the assessment, which would dramatically enhance China's ability to conduct surveillance operations. The secret document describing the drone has not yet been published, but reportedly shows the Chinese military is making technological advances that could threaten American warships around Taiwan and military bases in the region. The Washington Post has the story.


  • 20. The number of defamatory statements Dominion accused Fox of airing on its network.
  • $2.96 billion. The amount of money the company reported earning last year before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization.
  • $965 million. The penalty issued in last year’s judgment against InfoWars' Alex Jones for spreading lies and conspiracy theories about the Sandy Hook school shooting.
  • $2.7 billion. The damages sought by Smartmatic, another voting machine company, in its lawsuit against Fox News.
  • $1.6 billion (each). The damages sought by Dominion from Newsmax, OAN and Byrne for defamation.
  • Seven. The number of consecutive years Fox News has been the most watched cable television network in America.
  • 2.3 million. The average number of viewers who tune into Fox during weekday primetime slots.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we were covering the RNC's decision to boycott debates.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was my Twitter exchange with Matt Walsh.
  • Acceptance: 46.8% of Tangle readers said we have not gone far enough in accepting trans people; 21.8% said we have gone too far, and 9.4% said we're in the right spot. A full 22% said they didn't have an opinion, didn't know, or answered "other."
  • Nothing to do with politics: Italian police said they found two tons of cocaine worth roughly $440 million floating in the ocean. Oops.
  • Take the poll. How do you feel about the Fox News settlement? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

MRI brain images just got 64 million times sharper, thanks to new technology developed in a Duke-led effort to show the mouse brain in the highest resolution possible. While MRI tech is good enough to spot a brain tumor, it has to be a lot sharper to reveal the brain’s organization. Duke's Center for In Vivo Microscopy has been working for decades to improve MRI resolution, and say they have just captured the sharpest image ever of a mouse brain. The researchers say this new capability will allow better understanding of neurodegenerative diseases and how the brain responds to diet. You can see the incredible images here.

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.