Fox Settled a Lawsuit Over Its Lies. But It Insisted on One Unusual Condition.

Why did the network insist an agreement with the family of a murdered young man remain undisclosed until after the election?

The Fox News newsroom in New York.Credit…Ryan Jenq for The New York Times

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By Ben Smith

On Oct. 12, 2020, Fox News agreed to pay millions of dollars to the family of a murdered Democratic National Committee staff member, implicitly acknowledging what saner minds knew long ago: that the network had repeatedly hyped a false claim that the young staff member, Seth Rich, was involved in leaking D.N.C. emails during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Russian intelligence officers, in fact, had hacked and leaked the emails.)

Fox’s decision to settle with the Rich family came just before its marquee hosts, Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity, were set to be questioned under oath in the case, a potentially embarrassing moment. And Fox paid so much that the network didn’t have to apologize for the May 2017 story on

But there was one curious provision that Fox insisted on: The settlement had to be kept secret for a month — until after the Nov. 3 election. The exhausted plaintiffs agreed.

Why did Fox care about keeping the Rich settlement secret for the final month of the Trump re-election campaign? Why was it important to the company, which calls itself a news organization, that one of the biggest lies of the Trump era remain unresolved for that period? Was Fox afraid that admitting it was wrong would incite the president’s wrath? Did network executives fear backlash from their increasingly radicalized audience, which has been gravitating to other conservative outlets?

Fox News and its lawyer, Joe Terry, declined to answer that question when I asked last week. And two people close to the case, who shared details of the settlement with me, were puzzled by that provision, too.

The unusual arrangement underscores how deeply entwined Fox has become in the Trump camp’s disinformation efforts and the dangerous paranoia they set off, culminating in the fatal attack on the Capitol 11 days ago. The network parroted lies from Trump and his more sinister allies for years, ultimately amplifying the president’s enormous deceptions about the election’s outcome, further radicalizing many of Mr. Trump’s supporters.

The man arrested after rampaging through the Capitol with zip-tie handcuffs had proudly posted to Facebook a photograph with his shotgun and Fox Business on a giant screen in the background. The woman fatally shot as she pushed her way inside the House chamber had engaged Fox contributors dozens of times on Twitter, NPR reported.

High profile Fox voices, with occasional exceptions, not only fed the baseless belief that the election had been stolen, but they helped frame Jan. 6 as a decisive day of reckoning, when their audience’s dreams of overturning the election could be realized. And the network’s role in fueling pro-Trump extremism is nothing new: Fox has long been the favorite channel of pro-Trump militants. The man who mailed pipe bombs to CNN in 2018 watched Fox News “religiously,” according to his lawyers’ sentencing memorandum, and believed Mr. Hannity’s claim that Democrats were “encouraging mob violence” against people like him.

And yet, as we in the media reckon with our role in the present catastrophe, Fox often gets left out of the story. You can see why. Dog bites man is never news. Fox’s vitriol and distortions are simply viewed as part of the landscape now. The cable channel has been a Republican propaganda outlet for decades, and under President Trump’s thumb for years. So while the mainstream media loves to beat itself up — it’s a way, sometimes, of inflating our own importance — we have mostly sought less obvious angles in this winter’s self-examination. The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan concluded last week that the mainstream press is “flawed and stuck for too long in outdated conventions,” but “has managed to do its job.” MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan said the media had “failed” by normalizing Trump.

I took my turn last week, writing about how a man I worked with at BuzzFeed played a role in the insurrection. One thoughtful reader, a former engineer at Corning, wrote to me to say she’d been reckoning with a similar sense of complicity. The engineer was on the team that developed the thin, bright glass that made possible the ubiquitous flat screen televisions that rewired politics and our minds. She’s now asking herself whether “this glass made it happen.”

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