Outside its own constituency of loyalists, the revelation that Fox News lies to its audience is probably not much of a revelation at all. Nonetheless, thanks to the recently released text of a defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, there can be absolutely no dispute about the following: in the wake of the 2020 presidential contest, the network not only misled its viewers about the legitimacy of election fraud claims, but did so in full knowledge that they had absolutely no basis in fact.
In both a legal and an ethical sense, the distinction is an important one. Even with vast resources at their disposal, media outlets periodically make factual errors without malintent and just as regularly issue corrections. It is quite something else, on the other hand, to publish or air claims when you know them to be incorrect. Establishing credibility with your audience and then misleading them is bad. Willfully lying to viewers is immeasurably worse.
Throughout the two-week period that followed its own declaration of Joe Biden’s victory, according to one analysis by the liberal website Media Matters, the Fox network and its hosts questioned the integrity of the election results almost eight hundred times — regularly singling out Dominion Voting Systems for the likes of “rigging” and “flipping” votes. Several months later, Dominion itself responded by filing a defamation suit, the contents of which were made publicly available earlier this month. Among other things, the filing offers numerous instances of prominent Fox News anchors and editorial staff privately dismissing election fraud claims as baseless even as the network regularly gave them credence on air.
Here are just a few examples, as compiled by Media Matters:
- Fox star Tucker Carlson to his producer Alex Pfeiffer about Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s campaign lawyers: “Powell is lying.” [11/16/20]
- Host Laura Ingraham to Carlson and fellow host Sean Hannity: “Sidney Powell is a bit nuts. Sorry but she is.” [11/15/20]
- Carlson to Ingraham: “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane.” Ingraham replied: “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.” Carlson replied: “It’s unbelievably offensive to me. Our viewers are good people and they believe it.” [11/19/20]
- Fox Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt on whether the allegation that Dominion rigged the election was true: “No reasonable person would have thought that.”
- Ingraham’s producer Tommy Firth texted Fox executive Ron Mitchell: “This dominion shit is going to give me a fucking aneurysm — as many times as I’ve told Laura it’s bs, she sees shit posters and trump tweeting about it.” [11/8/20]
- Carlson complained to fellow host Sean Hannity about Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich, who “was ‘fact checking’ a tweet by Trump that mentioned Dominion — and specifically mentioned Hannity’s and Dobbs’ broadcasts that evening discussing Dominion” Carlson reportedly wrote: “Please get her fired. Seriously. . . . What the fuck? 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.” [11/12/20]
Equally instructive are other quotes from Fox personnel that suggest a major impetus for the network’s embrace of election conspiracies was fear of losing viewers to the rival Newsmax. The filing suggests that, after Fox’s calling of the election for Biden on November 7, 2020, it faced a backlash from its audience so swift and intense that leading anchors and staff became concerned over its standing.
Following the call, a panicked Carlson texted his producer, “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? We’re playing with fire, for real. . . . An alternative like Newsmax could be devastating to us.” A few days later, network president Jay Wallace and CEO Suzanne Scott texted one another, with the former commenting, “The Newsmax surge is a bit troubling — truly is an alternative universe when you watch, but it can’t be ignored.” The latter agreed, further remarking that she was “trying to get everyone to comprehend we are on war footing.”
There’s plenty more in the same vein. But what’s arguably most interesting — apart from the disjuncture between what Fox broadcast and what its key figures actually believed — are the insights offered into how considerations of profit and market share shape the network’s editorial decisions. These, rather than any genuine conviction the election had been stolen or even hosts’ investment in the Republican cause, appear to have been the most significant force in Fox’s calculations.
Among other things, it’s a reminder that cable news is first and foremost a for-profit business in which objective reality and even partisan considerations are ultimately subordinate to the bottom line. The ongoing panic surrounding fake news and misinformation often elides the fact that major news networks are far more complicit in promoting falsehoods than the social media platforms that are usually blamed. In this respect, Fox’s opportunistic embrace of the Trumpian election fraud narrative is a particularly good case in point: the network feared competition and was so determined to maintain relationships integral to its business interests that it actively broadcast information its anchors and editorial staff knew to be untrue.
Much as Fox is particularly deserving of criticism, the problem of misinformation and the profit motive so often at its root are by no means confined to right-wing media. Nonconservative networks like CNN regularly torque the framing of important public issues around the interests of advertisers. The erroneous “hacking” narrative promoted by some liberal outlets in the wake of the 2016 election succeeded in convincing large numbers of Democratic voters that a foreign government had quite literally altered vote tallies to elect Donald Trump. Throughout that same year, networks that officially loathed Trump also gave him tens of millions of dollars in free advertising because it was good for their ratings.
Partisan bias in the media undoubtedly plays a significant role in undermining the truth, suppressing inconvenient facts, and spreading misinformation. But the real culprit in fake news is often nothing other than the company bottom line.