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What critics of the Fox News-Dominion settlement don’t understand

Forcing the channel to apologize wouldn’t burst its viewers’ bubbles.

Earlier this week, Fox News finally paid a price for years of spreading lies and misinformation — and at $787.5 million it was, to put it mildly, an extraordinarily expensive lesson. To settle the lawsuit brought by Dominion Voting Systems over false allegations of fraud related to the 2020 election, Fox will pay one of the largest monetary settlements ever in a defamation case.

Some critics of the agreement, however, are publicly wondering whether Fox really learned its lesson. “Rupert wins again,” declared Politico media critic Jack Shafer, in a reference to Fox Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch. While $787.5 million is nothing to sneeze at, Fox News has more than $4 billion in cash on hand. So it’s not as if it can’t afford to pay Dominion. 

And as critics of the settlement ruefully note, Fox News isn’t required to tell viewers that it lied to them about Dominion or the 2020 election. As liberal writer Molly Jong-Fast noted, the lack of public comeuppance for the nation’s most-watched cable news outlet “is why a lot of us feel like Fox won.”

It’s hard to see how a public apology or contrition would change the cultlike hold that Fox News has on its viewers.

Indeed, even in announcing the agreement, Fox continued to gaslight. It acknowledged “the court’s rulings finding certain claims about Dominion to be false,” but it asserted that the “settlement reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.” The latter clause, when applied to Fox News, is akin to throwing irony into a pit of acid.

But while it’s easy to sympathize with the frustrations over the settlement, it’s hard to see how a public apology or contrition would change the cultlike hold that Fox News has on its viewers. After all, they don’t tune into the network because they want to get fair and balanced news and information. 

They want to be lied to.

The entire reason this case emerged is that beginning on election night 2020, Fox News told its viewers the truth — Donald Trump was most likely going to lose his bid for re-election. When Fox correspondents corrected Trump’s repeated mistruths about the election, its viewers didn’t have a collective epiphany. They didn’t suddenly experience a moment of clarity and realize that everything they had been led to believe by Trump and his cronies was a lie. Instead, they demanded that Fox tell them what they wanted to hear — that the 2020 election was stolen. They changed the channel to Newsmax and One America News to get their daily falsity fix. They found other, even less scrupulous media outlets to tell them what they wanted to hear.  

The response at Fox was swift and predictable. When the channel's election team called Arizona for Joe Biden, Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott railed against those responsible for failing to “protect” Fox’s brand. When White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked a tweet by Trump spreading election lies, star hosts Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity demanded that Fox fire her. “It’s measurably hurting the company,” Carlson told Hannity and fellow talking head Laura Ingraham in a group chat. “The stock price is down. Not a joke.” Soon after, Heinrich deleted the tweet. And when host Neil Cavuto cut away from a White House news conference after press secretary Kayleigh McEnany made false fraud allegations, Fox executives complained about “the brand threat” from his actions. 

Fox News’ cynical, purposeful enabling of Trump’s election obsession was a mutually beneficial endeavor.

Behind the scenes, Fox personalities and executives knew that Cavuto, Heinrich, et al. were correct — and said so in text messages and emails that Dominion publicized in legal filings. But they also understood that they must uphold the deal they’d long ago made with Fox’s viewers: tell them exactly what they wanted to hear in return for their loyalty. 

Fox News’ cynical, purposeful enabling of Trump’s election obsession was a mutually beneficial endeavor: Fox got to keep its viewers, and those viewers got their reality-adjacent belief system reinforced. Even if Fox were required to admit having aired repeated falsehoods about the 2020 election, the network’s loyal viewers would most likely just discount it, compartmentalize it or simply explain it away. To believe that Fox had lied to them would mean believing that Trump had lied, as well. Making that leap of logic would dismantle an entire belief system and worldview. 

This is how the conservative echo chamber has long operated. Since Trump first ran for president nearly eight years ago, he has taken standard Republican mistruths and put them on steroids. Trump told his supporters that he wouldn’t just stop illegal immigration but build a wall. He said he wouldn’t just defeat Hillary Clinton but lock her up. And he wouldn’t just ban some Muslims but prevent all of them from entering the country. “I alone can fix it,” he said at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. He didn’t do any of those things as president, and yet his supporters still continue to back him and still believe that in his four years in office, he “made America great again.” 

Over two years later, he continues to tell them that the 2020 election was stolen even though reams of evidence show it’s simply not true. In fact, perhaps the only way Trump could lose the support of his most fervent backers is if he did what he has practically never done since his ride down the Trump Tower escalator — tell the truth. 

Though that still might not be enough. Instead, his backers would most likely gravitate to some other politician to lie to them, just as Fox News viewers briefly abandoned the network when it had a momentary bout of truth-telling.

Fox News isn’t the first propaganda network to cynically profit from furthering its viewers’ ideological fantasies. While undoubtedly Fox is a uniquely pernicious font of misinformation, as the old saying goes, “there’s a sucker born every minute.” Forcing Fox News to apologize and briefly tell the truth isn’t going to change that fundamental reality.