Will the Fox-Dominion Settlement Affect Its News Coverage? Don’t Count on It.
After the 2020 election, the talk inside Fox News was all about “a pivot” — a reorienting of its coverage away from former President Donald J. Trump and toward the more conventional Republican politics favored by the network’s founding chairman, Rupert Murdoch.
Mr. Murdoch said then that he wanted to make Mr. Trump a “non person.” And as recently as January, when he was deposed as part of Dominion Voting Systems’ defamation lawsuit against Fox, his feelings hadn’t changed. “I’d still like to,” Mr. Murdoch said.
But Fox’s audience — the engine of its profits and the largest in all of cable — may not let him.
Anyone expecting that Fox’s $787.5 million settlement with Dominion this week would make the network any humbler or gentler is likely to be disappointed. And there probably won’t be much of a shift in the way the network favorably covers Mr. Trump and the issues that resonate with his followers.
“How are you going to make an argument to your hosts to not do things that rate?” said Chris Stirewalt, a former Fox News editor and on-air personality who was fired by the network in 2021 and was lined up to be a witness in the Dominion case. “You can’t tell people, ‘Do anything to get a rating, but don’t cover the most popular figure in the Republican Party.’”
After a hiatus from the network that lasted much of 2022, Mr. Trump is back on Fox News. He’s sat for three interviews with the network in less than a month. The most recent one, which was taped earlier this month with Mark Levin, will air on Sunday.
Even voter fraud — the issue that resulted in Fox being sued for billions of dollars by Dominion and another voting technology company, Smartmatic — hasn’t entirely gone away. In Mr. Trump’s recent interview with the Fox host Tucker Carlson, he implied that there was good reason to doubt the legitimacy of President Biden’s victory, saying, “People could say he won an election.”
Mr. Carlson, for his part, has also dipped back into election denialism recently. “Jan. 6, I think, is probably second only to the 2020 election as the biggest scam of my lifetime,” he said on the air on March 14. (His private text messages, revealed as part of Dominion’s suit, show him discussing with his producers how there was no proof the results of the 2020 election were materially affected by fraud.)
In the immediate term, Mr. Murdoch seems unlikely to make any major changes at any of his Fox properties. Doing so, said three people who have worked closely with him, would be seen as the kind of acknowledgment of wrongdoing he is loath to make. The Dominion settlement included no apology — just a glancing reference to a judge’s findings that Fox had broadcast false statements about Dominion machines and their role in a fanciful plot to steal the election from Mr. Trump.
The $787.5 million payout is huge — itself an acknowledgment of wrongdoing of sorts, as one of the largest settlements ever in a defamation case. But it did not lead to the same degree of personal humiliation as the phone hacking scandal involving Mr. Murdoch’s British newspapers. Then, in 2011, he had to appear before Parliament and atone for how his journalists had illegally hacked the voice mail accounts of prominent figures. He had a foam pie thrown in his face and admitted during his testimony, “This is the most humble day of my life.”
But his signature American news channel is showing few signs of humility. It devoted two short segments on Tuesday to news of the Dominion settlement. Its coverage then quickly returned to the same subjects it’s been hammering since Mr. Biden was elected.
Its news reports on the surge of migrants at the southern border are presented under the rubric “Biden Border Crisis.” Republican lawmakers’ efforts to pass laws banning transgender girls from school sports teams receive prominent attention — when only a tiny number are actually playing, and sometimes none at all in states where the laws have been fiercely debated. President Biden is variously portrayed as incoherent, corrupt and weak — especially regarding his posture toward China. Footage of criminals ransacking stores, assaulting police officers and attacking unwitting bystanders play on a loop — often with perpetrators who are Black.
Even Mr. Trump’s lies about fraud in the 2020 presidential election have cropped up here and there. Last week, the right-wing commentator Clay Travis appeared on “Jesse Watters Primetime,” which last year replaced a more straight news program at 7 p.m., and declared that Mr. Biden “only won by 20,000 votes after they rigged the entire election, after they hid everything associated with Hunter Biden, with the big tech, with the big media, and with the big Democrat Party collusion that all worked in his favor.”
Mr. Watters did not correct or respond to those remarks on the air.
Stories of voter fraud, often exaggerated and unsubstantiated, have been part of the network’s D.N.A. well before 2020. In 2012, Roger Ailes, who founded Fox News with Mr. Murdoch, sent a team of journalists to Ohio to investigate still-unproven claims of malfeasance at the polls after former President Barack Obama beat Mitt Romney there.
There are, however, some subtle signs that Fox wishes to move past the Dominion episodes and its embarrassing disclosures of network executives privately belittling the same fraud claims they allowed on the air. It has recently started a promotional campaign highlighting its team of global correspondents in 30-second ads. “We have a mission to be on the ground reporting the big stories,” one says. The tensions between its news division and its prime-time hosts were exposed as part of the Dominion case, with private messages from late 2020 showing that hosts like Mr. Carlson and Sean Hannity had mocked and complained about reporters in the Fox Washington bureau who would fact-check the former president’s fraud claims.
And last week, Fox chose not to renew the contract of one of the most vociferous election deniers on its payroll, Dan Bongino, formerly the host of a Saturday evening show.
A spokeswoman for Fox News said in a written statement that the network had “significantly increased its investment in journalism over the last several years, further expanding our news gathering commitment both domestically and abroad.” The statement added, “We are incredibly proud of our team of journalists.”
Mr. Trump undoubtedly remains one of the biggest stories of the moment, putting the network’s leadership in a position it finds less than ideal. In his deposition, Mr. Murdoch acknowledged referring privately to the former president as “nuts,” “plain bonkers” and “unable to suppress his egomania.” His personal politics are much closer to an establishment Republican in the mold of Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader whom Mr. Ailes worked for as a media consultant decades ago.
Mr. Trump can still draw high ratings, even if he is no longer the singular figure he once was in the Republican Party. His interview with Mr. Carlson, after his indictment in Manhattan on felony charges, drew an audience of 3.7 million. An interview that Mr. Carlson did several weeks before with Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida drew 3.1 million.
In the end, the numbers may be the decisive factor about what kind of coverage Fox gives the former president, no matter Mr. Murdoch’s preferences.
A former Fox executive, John Ellis, summarized the conundrum the network has with its audience in his newsletter after Mr. Trump announced his 2024 campaign — an event that Fox News broadcast live. “The power of Fox News to influence the outcomes of GOP primaries can be decisive,” he wrote. Fox’s audience has plenty of Trump supporters, of course, but also many others who may prefer another Republican as the nominee. People who identify as politically independent watch it far more than they do CNN or MSNBC, according to data from Nielsen in January and February.
“Trump probably cannot win the 2024 nomination if Fox News is determined to defeat him,” Mr. Ellis added. “But in order to defeat him, Fox News must have the permission of its audience to do so.”
Michael M. Grynbaum contributed reporting.