Fox News finally reveals its kryptonite: the bottom line
Fox News isn’t news, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. Let’s call it what it is: a right-wing variety show where ratings trump truth.
That’s certainly not a revelation to the millions of Americans who’ve been horrified by the network’s lack of journalistic integrity or to folks who are resigned to the dystopian nightmare that democracy will fall before Tucker Carlson’s ratings do. But the Dominion Voting System’s $1.6-billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News has exposed a vulnerability at the heart of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire — and intensified the pressure on his conservative crown jewel to alter its destructive course.
Dominion has hit Fox where it hurts, and I’m not referring to its moral compass. As News Corp. executive chairman, Murdoch acknowledged in deposition testimony, he allowed election deniers like Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell to continue appearing on the network in order to coddle angry Trump voters who were, he said, “probably mostly viewers of Fox” — even though Murdoch, like his on-air talent, knew their claims to be false, and thought then-President Trump to be a sore loser. He also assented to the suggestion that his decision-making “is not red or blue,” but “green.” In other words, not politics, per se, but money, profit and ratings are the bedrock of Fox’s coverage. If a fact makes its way into the mix, so be it.
Lawyers believe Dominion has a powerful argument against Fox News. Evidence so far, including Rupert Murdoch’s deposition, is already giving the conservative network headaches.
The fear of losing viewers to upstart Newsmax and its ultra-right-wing brethren has clearly influenced programming decisions at Fox News. Take the days following the 2020 election. Internal communications show Tucker Carlson’s producer Alex Pfeiffer warned the host about straying from their most popular talking point: “Many viewers were upset tonight that we didn’t cover election fraud. … It’s all our viewers care about right now.”
Court filings reveal that Carlson, like his boss, was panicking about the bottom line. When Fox News White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked Trump’s election lies in a tweet, Carlson wrote in a text chain with fellow hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity: “Please get her fired. Seriously ... What the f—? I’m actually shocked... It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.” All knew the election fraud claims were a lie.
Indeed, reams of internal communications within Fox News show that leadership and management fully understood that Dominion voting machines weren’t part of a nefarious plan out of Venezuela to steal the election from Trump and hand it to Joe Biden. In his bombshell deposition, Murdoch threw Fox News’ star anchors under the bus. Asked if he was “now aware that Fox endorsed at times this false notion of a stolen election,” Murdoch said, “Not Fox. But maybe Lou Dobbs, maybe Maria [Bartiromo] as commentators. … Some of our commentators were endorsing it. They endorsed.”
Throughout the tense days following the 2020 election, through the deadly events of Jan. 6 and the fate of the union balancing on a razor’s edge, Fox doubled down again and again, attacking whomever or whatever it needed to stay in the black. But picking on Dominion, an entity with the resources to fight back, was a bad idea. Legal analysts have said there is ample evidence to prove in court that Fox unfairly targeted the voting machine maker, whether the ulterior motive was to help Trump and the Republican Party stay in power, feed viewers more of the red meat the network itself had gotten them hooked on, trounce competitors or all of the above.
Commentary: Fox News helped create the Big Lie. Now, as ratings slide, it can’t escape it
Fox News abandoned “fair and balanced” before Donald Trump assumed office, but its assault on truth has only ramped up since. And the devolution was televised.
Media watchdog groups have called for Fox to be penalized for its creative use of the word “news,” but those campaigns have been about as effective in creating real change as Robert Mueller’s report on Russian collusion in the 2016 election. Arguing against Fox News on moral or ethical grounds presupposes that the network values the basic tenets of journalism, such as avoiding conflicts of interest that would erode its credibility. But that ship has long since sailed, perhaps off the flat end of the Earth if we’re to believe the extreme elements the network’s conspiracy theorizing inevitably courts.
Even before the Dominion lawsuit, litigation has been the only effective weapon in the fight against Fox News’ dangerous excesses. After all, two of the network’s most influential — and seemingly untouchable — figures were taken down by lawsuits. News of multiple settlements, which in turn spurred more lawsuits, ultimately quieted its top blowhard, Bill O’Reilly, and its too-big-to-fail CEO, Roger Ailes. And make no mistake, it was an avalanche of multimillion-dollar payouts that toppled them, not the shame or embarrassment that they preyed on their colleagues and underlings.
Fox News’ loose relationship with the facts, and its unholy alliance with the most unhinged characters in the Republican Party, has finally come home to roost, and now the network is poised to pay a massive price. But it won’t be the revelation that it’s a partisan propaganda outlet that will bring it to heel. As with O’Reilly and Ailes, what might succeed in silencing the network’s worst instincts will be what’s been its kryptonite all along: the almighty dollar.
9:05 p.m. March 7, 2023: This story has been updated to reflect details from transcripts of deposition testimony released Tuesday.
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