Rupert Murdoch usually settles his many lawsuits — so why is he toughing out the Dominion case?


Rupert Murdoch is no stranger to getting sued. His international media company, News Corp, often finds itself at the center of gruesome scandals stemming from Murdoch’s freewheeling attitude about journalistic and business ethics. A defamation lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News, Murdoch’s biggest American company, is but the latest example on his long history of being on the receiving end of righteous litigation. A little over a decade ago, for instance, Murdoch’s British newspapers were embroiled in a sprawling case of journalistic malfeseance involving hacking the phones of politicians, celebrities and even crime victims in order to publish stolen materials. News Corp ended up settling out of court with hundreds of victims, including actor Hugh Grant and soccer star Wayne Rooney. 

Then there’s the long history of Fox News settling sexual harassment cases out of court, often saddling victims with non-disclosure agreements. All told, the cost of those settlements is believed to have topped a whopping $200 million for Murdoch’s company. The company has also paid staggering settlements in less-sexy but still damning cases involving anti-trust laws and corporate mismanagement. What Murdoch has paid out in lawsuit settlements may top the GDP of many a small nation. 

The court filings have been so bad that it may finally destroy the mainstream media myth that the network deserves to be treated like a journalistic operation. 

“Settlement” is the key word here. What this long history of litigation shows is that Murdoch sees paying off his various victims as the price of doing business. His company is sleazy and he often doesn’t even try to deny it. When it’s accountability time, Murdoch just whips out his checkbook to make the problem go away. He’s one of the richest men in the United States, and can buy his way out of most kinds of trouble, after all. 

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All of which is why it’s surprising that he hasn’t yet offered to settle out of court with Dominion. It’s certainly not because Dominion has a weak case against Fox News. As two weeks of court filings show, the ballot machine manufacturer has amassed an impressive amount of evidence that the leadership at Fox News, both its executives and famous hosts, were well aware that they were misleading their audiences by repeatedly suggesting the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump by President Joe Biden. They knew Big Lie promoters like Sydney Powell and Rudy Giuliani were talking pure nonsense, but presented them as expert sources anyway. 

Murdoch himself has had to sit for a deposition, in which he came across as a comic book villain. At one point, when asked why he kept platforming conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, even knowing that Lindell’s election claims were ridiculouslly false, he replied, “It is not red or blue, it is green.” The court filings have been so bad that it may finally destroy the mainstream media myth that the network deserves to be treated like a journalistic operation. 

Yes, Dominion is asking for $1.6 billion, which is a big number by most reasonable standards. Still, that’s likely not why Murdoch seems willing to take his chances in court. He’s settled similarly huge cases before, and often for a fraction of what the plaintiffs were asking. The Murdoch family is worth over $17 billion. Fox News makes about $14 billion in revenue in a year. So it might make a lot of financial sense to try to settle this out of court, especially as there’s a real threat that more court filings will result in more brand-damaging media coverage. 

In light of all this, I suspect the reason Murdoch and Fox News seem determined to stick this out is that they are just that worried about what impact an admission of wrongdoing would have on their reputation with their audience. The possibility of a jury ruling in their favor, which they could spin as a total exoneration of their tactics, is so important to them that they’re willing to take a big risk that the opposite could happen. A settlement, however, would remove all doubt about who was in the wrong. 

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That Fox News is very worried about this lawsuit is not hard to surmise. I’ve written critically about the network for years. I rarely, if ever, hear a peep from their communications department. Yet every time I write about the Dominion lawsuit, I now promptly get an email from the network’s press office stressing that this case “would prevent journalists from basic reporting” and is “a blatant violation of the First Amendment.”

Fox News leadership is genuinely worried that their viewers will perceive them as a propaganda outlet, instead of a news organization.

Of course, as the Dominion filings showed, internal machinations at Fox News were precisely about how to prevent journalists from conducting basic reporting. Tucker Carlson demanded the firing of a Fox reporter for reporting the simple fact of the election outcome. The latest filing quotes Murdoch himself suggesting firing a data analyst for correctly reporting that Biden had won the Arizona election. It’s telling that Fox News puts so much pressure on journalists, even when it’s just opinion writing. It suggests they’re incredibly worried that this lawsuit really could damage them in the eyes of the only people they clearly care about: MAGA. 

Trump himself is, in many ways, the typical Fox viewer: Elderly, obsessed with his baseless grievances, and hostile to anything resembling reality-based journalism. His response to all this has been telling. Unsurprisingly, he has a sociopath’s lack of remorse for getting Fox News into this situation in the first place, by making the Big Lie a thing their audience wanted to hear more of. Instead, he’s been raving on Truth Social about “how weak and ineffective Fox News is” and how they should defend themselves instead by doubling down on the lies, but this time in a court setting. 

They’re probably not going to do that, because that’s committing perjury. The company has enough legal headaches already from doing Trump’s bidding. But there may be some wisdom, albeit of the totally cynical sort, in the strategy of being seen by their audience as putting up a fight, rather than settling out of court. That creates the room for Fox to paint themselves as hapless victims and continue the pretense that what they’re doing is “journalism.” As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post notes, it’s “an arduous legal undertaking” to meet the standard of defamation against a media outlet. Dominion has done a remarkable job of it, yet the standard is so high that it may still prove to be an impossible undertaking. If that happens, Fox News can take that victory to viewers and pretend it fully exonerates them of being deliberate purveyors of disinformation. 

Or, to boil it all down: What this all suggests is that Fox News leadership is genuinely worried that their viewers will perceive them as a propaganda outlet, instead of a news organization. Why that bothers them is hard to suss out. As the court filings show, the leadership of Fox News felt pressure from their audience to downplay actual facts and play up conspiracy theories. It feels like theirs is not an audience who cares about facts, or even the illusion of facts. But watching Fox’s machinations around this case, it seems that they believe keeping up the pretense that they are “news” matters to their viewers, even if no one actually believes it. 


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