Fox “News” is a product of niche marketing, of detriment to democracy but immensely profitable. Its parent corporation took in an estimated $1.2 billion last year. Now, however, it must pay $787.5 million to Dominion Voting Systems in order to settle the mother of all defamation suits.
The settlement with Dominion, which sought $1.6 billion after being defamed by Fox hosts, was the lead report for almost all news outlets. The exception was, of course, Fox viewers, who were told almost nothing. The right wing network stuck with its usual staples, demonizing transgender athletes and depicting cities with Democratic mayors as centers of crime and violence.
The network was designed to attract viewers unsatisfied with the reporting of the mass media, and in the market for “news” mirroring their own views.
“We’re not here to pass ourselves off as intellectuals: We’re here to give the public what they want,” owner Rupert Murdoch explained at launch.
What the viewers got was a lineup of right-wing pundits, dark conspiracy theories, and ample display of women’s legs. No pantsuits at Fox. The network served as cheerleader for the invasion of Iraq, promoter of Republican politicians, and employer of losing Republican candidates, while demonizing President Obama.
When Barack and Michelle Obama touched knuckles upon winning the Democratic presidential nomination, a Fox personality termed it a “terrorist fist bump.”
Typical of Fox was adoring, copious coverage given to two Republican candidates in Washington, Senate hopeful Tiffany Smiley and ultra MAGA House candidate Joe Kent, in last fall’s election. Interviewing Smiley in her race against Senator Patty Murray, host Sean Hannity declared: “We want that seat.”
The line became the centerpiece of a Murray reelection commercial.
Fox spent four years shilling for Donald Trump. The former occupant of the Oval Office boosted ratings for Hannity, a boring party line pundit.
Fox commentators have depicted Joe Biden as in the early stages of dementia and zeroed in on his vigorous Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
Long gone is the network’s initial tagline – “Fair and Balanced” – as well as figures like Chris Wallace and Carl Cameron interested in practicing journalism.
What the Fox audience wanted, in the 2020 election, was four more years of Trump. The American people disagreed and gave Joe Biden a margin of 2.9 million votes. Having spent years branding his critics as “losers”, Trump could not accept defeat. He claimed the election was stolen, fomenting specious claims and losing court cases before Trump-nominated federal judges.
Viewers of Fox were infuriated when the network was first to forecast that Biden would carry Arizona. Top brass at Fox privately agreed that Joe Biden had secured an Electoral College majority and would become our forty-sixth president. But with Fox viewers defecting to rivals on the right, such as Newsmax, the network’s pundits gave air time and credence to election deniers and conspiracy theorists, more famously Rudy Giuliani with hair dye streaming down his face.
The viewer base had to be fed what it wanted to hear, that Trump really won the election. The accusations were absurd, including a claim that long-deceased Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez helped create Dominion, and that the company deployed a secret algorithm to take Trump’s votes and give them to Biden. Under fire from Fox, the company took a painful business hit, and its employees endured a multitude of threats.
In preparing its case, Dominion discovered and disclosed what Fox brass were saying to each other backstage. “Just watched Giuliani press conference: stupid and damaging,” Rupert Murdoch said in one email. In another, “Terrible stuff damaging everybody I fear – Probably hurting us, too.”
In private, top-rated host Tucker Carlson was professing to hate Trump, and warning of damage to the Fox News “brand.” “With Trump behind it, an alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us,” he said in an email.
On the air, however, Carlson continued to hint at conspiracies. A notable crank, lawyer Sidney Powell, fielded a question from Fox host Maria Bartiromo: “Sidney, I want to ask you about these algorithms and Dominion software.” On Fox Business, host Lou Dobbs – a KING5 alumnus – was spreading the rumors.
Dominion had a steep hill to climb in its defamation suit against Fox. Under terms of the Supreme Court’s seminal 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, the company had to prove that allegations on Fox were of “reckless disregard of its falsity or whether it was true or false”” as well as the product of “actual malice.”
The plaintiff did a remarkable job, and leaked much of its damaging evidence before the scheduled trial date this week. How much more is going to get aired, Fox executives must have asked themselves. The judge in Delaware ruled that Fox broadcasts were, in fact, false. Truth could not be used as a defense.
As well, the network faced the prospect of having Rupert Murdoch, Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham on the witness stand, explaining the contradiction between their private statements and public slanders. All that and under oath to tell the truth. The trial would have brought out conflict between Fox’s prime time pundits and what’s left of the division that is supposed to be reporting news.
The pricetag for sparing the witness stand, and escaping accountability, came to $787.50 million. “The truth matters: Lies have consequences,” Dominion’s lawyer Justin Nelson said outside the courtroom. “Over two years ago, a torrent of lies swept Dominion and election officials across America into an alternative universe of conspiracy theories, causing grievous harm to Dominion and the country.”
Fox is not off the hook. Another firm smeared after the 2020 election, Smaartmatic, is suing Fox News for $2.7 billion, with a trial date pending.
Fox News is paying for damaging democracy and poisoning the body politics. It’s the cost of pandering rather than telling the truth.
As Fox chief executive Suzanne Scott said in an email, “I can’t keep defending these reporters who don’t understand our viewers and how to handle stories “
Rupert Murdoch can hope for happier days. The ninety-two year-old patriarch of FNC is about to be married for the fifth time.