I am not a Fox News fan, so I was curious what the conservative media company’s viewers made of this week’s massive $787.5-million settlement with Dominion Voting Systems over broadcasting lies that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen.
On Monday, I reached out to some of the conservatives who had responded to a Twitter survey I sent out in 2019 asking how they thought I should cover the upcoming election. Given that they were interested enough at the time to tell me how they thought I should do my job for the L.A. Times back then, I was curious about how they interpreted Fox News’ decision to settle with Dominion.
I was surprised at a couple of the responses I got back.
“I am much less of a Fox News viewer now than when you sent the survey [in 2019] for the specific reason that whereas they had set the agenda for Republicans — politicians took cues from their narratives and topics — now it’s the opposite,” one conservative wrote back to me in an email. “What the lawsuit showed through discovery is that the network no longer controls the narrative. Instead it’s driven by the base of the party and rather than dictate terms of the political agenda the network is simply following the party’s base.”
Another Fox News viewer wrote back to me with a similar rebuke for the channel: “Yes, it has affected my view of FOX. Negatively. FOX has enough money to fight a court case. Instead, they chose to settle. To me that means they felt there was a significant possibility they would lose in court once the facts of the case were litigated. Unfortunately I am now persuaded that I can trust NONE of the mainstream media. It seems they are all interested in only one thing — views. Views translate to income through advertising. They will get views at any cost, including untruthful reporting.”
There’s nothing more tantalizing to a journalist than apostates. But what also interested me in both of these responses was how they played off and inverted a classic left-wing criticism of for-profit media. It’s worth exploring to understand what, exactly, just happened at Fox News.
Here goes: The mass media serve a bamboozling role on behalf of a powerful, controlling elite in the “propaganda model” theory given by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their 1988 book “Manufacturing Consent.” “Money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public,” they write. In this telling, journalists who think they’re practicing objectivity are just fooling themselves. It’s all just propaganda for the ruling class.
But in the closing days of the Trump administration, the way things actually played out at Fox News — the quintessential profiteering media giant, owned by tycoon Rupert Murdoch and fused at the hip with the ruling Republican Party — was so much simpler. No cabal needed here: Fox News was less afraid of Murdoch or of Trump than its own audience and what might happen if the masses stopped watching. The real boss was the ratings, the true master the quarterly earnings.
Take what Dominion learned in the trial’s discovery process about the supposedly all-powerful Murdoch, one of the world’s wealthiest people. Murdoch called Trump’s stolen election claims a “myth” and acknowledged that he could have stopped election fibbers like Rudy Giuliani from going on the air and didn’t. Yet he was afraid of antagonizing the network’s viewers. His son Lachlan, Fox Corp.’s chief executive, said Fox News’ ratings kept him up at night.
Or take firebrand host Tucker Carlson, who wrote to fellow hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity in a text chain about a coworker who tweeted fact-checks of Trump’s election lies: “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.”
As the trial loomed, evidence abounded that, apart from some apparent true believers, few of the most powerful people inside Fox News actually believed the president’s lies that the election had been stolen. But the source of the profits — the audience — did. This is legally significant, because America’s very broad libel protections for journalists don’t cover “actual malice,” where you say things you either know or have reason to believe aren’t true. Fox News still faces formidable legal challenges from voting machine company Smartmatic and its own shareholders.
Smaller competitors Newsmax and One America News, which originally benefited from gaining some far-right viewers dissatisfied even with Fox’s coverage of the election, are also still in Dominion and Smartmatic’s legal sights over election lies. (Newsmax published a particularly jittery defense of itself after Fox’s settlement, stating “that the facts at issue in Dominion’s case against it are materially different from those that may have driven Fox to settle, and no conclusion about Newsmax should be drawn from that settlement.”)
The scope of the completely avoidable disaster at Fox News revives old questions about who actually wields the power of the media. What’s the point of being a massive media company like Fox, a big billionaire like Murdoch or a top TV host like Carlson if you’re still too scared to tell the truth when you really need to?
This question brings me back to my estranged Fox News viewers, who understood all too keenly that the network had sold itself out to its own audience — viewers just like them — and they resented it. They came to Fox News because they wanted agenda setting. But the channel, by chasing profits, had become too much of an engine reflecting fractious mass politics instead of elite opinion. This is the inversion of Chomsky.
My second respondent, Chuck Thompson, 79, from the northern Dallas suburb of Addison, told me in a follow-up phone interview that he used to like watching Fox News commentators like Carlson, Greg Gutfeld and “The Five” in clips on YouTube. A self-described conservative independent who usually votes for Republicans, Thompson knew that what he was getting from Fox News was commentary. But he was watching with the presumption that the opinions he was hearing were being based on solid reporting from elsewhere on the network. Thompson was, in short, expecting intellectual honesty.
“Basically I was of the opinion that the liberal media was just lying all the time because they hated Trump, and that rolled into lying all the time about everything that developed after that — the war in Ukraine, any kind of a scandal that came up,” Thompson said. “I had not questioned conservative media in the same way, because I believed what they were saying was more in line with the truth.”
But doubts began to creep into his mind when he noticed that, the same way the liberal media didn’t seem to think Trump could do any right, conservative media didn’t seem to think Trump couldn’t do any wrong — which didn’t feel right.
Those doubts coalesced this week when Fox News settled the Dominion lawsuit; Thompson said he’d been keeping an open mind about the case and wanted to see how things played out. “That settlement indicated to me that Fox knew they were going to get killed in court, which means they knew they were lying,” Thompson said.
Now, instead of just questioning the trustworthiness of liberal media, Thompson told me he now questioned the trustworthiness of all media. And he doesn’t know where to go from here. “If you’re conservative minded and you don’t believe in liberal news, and then suddenly you don’t believe in conservative news, you don’t have news,” he said.
Yet I expect viewers like Thompson are probably in the minority. At the moment, it doesn’t seem realistic to expect Fox News to seriously change its ways. The channel could barely bring itself to disclose to viewers the brutal beating it had just taken in the Dominion lawsuit. The company seems to have enough financial reserves to pay out the settlement and then some. Murdoch’s media empire is, after all, used to paying lots of big settlements after flouting the law, and it doesn’t seem to have been all that bad for business. (Viewers straying over to Newsmax, though — that’s bad for business.) When the money spigot stays on, everybody stays paid, the rank and file stays in line. Inside the prison of profit, the meals are hot, the blankets are soft and few tunnel to escape.