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It’s gone well beyond partisan politics. It has little to do with President Biden’s agenda on infrastructure or jobs or just about anything concerning policy. It’s not about government spending or Dr. Seuss, cancel culture or historic cultural wedge issues like abortion.
It’s about telling the truth about the results of the 2020 election and putting an end to the dangerous lie—the dangerous cancer that’s still spreading across our body politic that the election was stolen by widespread voter fraud, Joe Biden was not legitimately elected, and the Trump GOP can say and do anything to get and keep power. If you doubt that the continuing perpetuation of the Big Lie fuels radical extremists and may lead to further political violence, then you are not paying attention.
You would think that the deadly insurrection on January 6, in part a manifestation of that lie and all the conspiracy-mongering that surrounded it, would have been enough to shift the dynamic. Perhaps, a sane person would reason, the chilling chants of “Hang Mike Pence!” might have some impact in eliciting moderation. Or maybe the murders of and assaults on Capitol police officers would lead elected officials to think twice about keeping the incitement going.
But let’s put aside such wistful idealism. We can’t simply hope for the best when a major media outlet has largely abandoned its responsibility to employ facts and uses its powerful access to feed its viewers dangerous lies. The problem isn’t just that Fox feeds the minds of vulnerable viewers—it’s that they give license to every elected official to keep the cynical con going.
As Lis Power noted in Media Matters the week after the Capitol attack:
“In the two weeks after Fox News called the election for Biden, Fox News cast doubt on the results of the election at least 774 times. The network’s most prominent figures relentlessly attempted to subvert democracy by fueling conspiracy theories and spreading misinformation, rhetoric for which the network has refused to hold them accountable.”
Nor by all accounts has there been an internal reckoning. As David Folkenflik noted on NPR that week after the attack:
“Three Fox News staffers and two other people with close ties to Fox say the network's senior leaders have exerted no discernible effort to corral their leading figures or even express any coherent guidance for on-air discourse at a time of national crisis…For now, its strategic stance for the future is not clearly in focus to the outside eye, other than promising more of the same to hold onto Trump fans as continued viewers.”
Note the words “more of the same to hold onto Trump fans,” as if that goal justifies anything, even those things which can lead to violence. Don’t forget what Fox host Mark Levin uttered three days before the murderous attack: "If we don't fight on Jan. 6 on the floor of the Senate and the House—and that is the joint meeting of Congress on these electors—then we are done."
Yes, Fox did cancel host Lou Dobbs and his conspiracy-laden show, within 24 hours after he and the network (plus anchors Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro, and lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani) were hit in early February with a $2.7 billion defamation lawsuit by Smartmatic, the voting technology company. As Smartmatic lawyers described in a demand for retraction in mid-December:
“Fox News embarked on a disinformation campaign against Smartmatic shortly after the election closed and continuing today. Over the course of the campaign, Fox News published and republished dozens of false and misleading statements regarding Smartmatic.”
Then on March 26, Dominion Voting Systems, another voting tech company, filed an additional $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox News for an “orchestrated defamatory campaign” that “recklessly disregarded the truth.” This suit mentioned Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, as well as Bartiromo, Dobbs and Pirro, but only named Fox as the defendant. Describing what Fox did as taking “a small flame” of disinformation and turning it into “a forest fire,” Dominion stated:
"The truth matters. Lies have consequences. Fox sold a false story of election fraud in order to serve its own commercial purposes, severely injuring Dominion in the process. If this case does not rise to the level of defamation by a broadcaster, then nothing does."
What will it take to slow the spread of conspiracies and hate that has extended well beyond election fraud to include disinformation about the danger of the coronavirus, the safety of vaccines, and white supremacist rhetoric about immigrants and others? Clearly, multibillion-dollar lawsuits can make a mark in its central profit-making mission. One might assume advertiser boycotts targeting individual hosts will also have an impact, but less than might be expected because of the way in which Fox generates revenues.
As Politico’s Jack Shafer noted last month, Fox earns more from subscriber fees ($1.6 billion in 2020) than advertising dollars ($1.3 billion): “If Fox bowed to the protesters and showed [Tucker] Carlson the door, the network would have a new, costly boycott on its hands—that of loyal Carlson viewers vowing to cancel their news from their cable bundle until his return.” That explains why Carlson continues to mouth off seemingly without consequence.
Keeping the focus on the financial imperative, I’ve heard plenty of people calling to unbundle cable packages so Americans can choose whether they wish to include Fox News in what comes into their homes. But there are few signs that cable owners are prepared to go down this road.
I’ve also heard plenty wishing there was a simple legal restraint to reduce hateful speech and disinformation, but the cable broadcaster benefits from the right of free speech afforded by the First Amendment. As the Syracuse Law Review noted:
“For better or worse, First Amendment freedoms relating to the press are among the most vigorously and consistently protected. What is more, courts are increasingly reluctant to apply exceptions to free speech, particularly, when it comes to second guessing media outlets decision regarding what to air or publish.”
In the coming months, I expect to continue exploring how to confront the toxic dangers of Fox News and other media outlets bent on using their power to propagate disinformation. It’s hard to see how we can slow the poison in the system if elected officials continue to feel empowered to perpetuate the Big Lie. But there’s little doubt that rebuilding a constructive democracy—one that encourages voter access, fair elections and truth-telling and discourages violence—depends on it.
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