$1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox News exposes what was being said privately about the 2020 presidential election
by Bruce Frassinelli
Fair and balanced is what Fox News says it once was. The nonprofit organization Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting says Fox News is the most biased name in news among major news outlets.
With these two views being at opposite poles, which is right?
Anyone who considers Fox News as “fair and balanced” is living in an alternate universe. Five years ago, Fox changed its slogan to “Standing Up for What’s Right.”
The pretense by network executives that Fox strives for fairness and accuracy has been most recently stripped away by damning internal memos and testimony under oath in a much watched civil court case that is playing out in front of the world.
Dominion, a voting systems company, is suing Fox for $1.6 billion, claiming the network aired false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from former President Donald Trump and that Dominion was part of the plot that denied him a second four-year term and rigged the election in favor of President Joe Biden.
Fox’s well-known hosts, as well as owner Rupert Murdoch, repeatedly criticized Trump in private while going over the top to support him on air and in public. A text from Tucker Carlson, one of Fox’s top personalities who was a major on-air Trump supporter, said of the former President: “I hate him passionately.” Other documents released in February showed that Fox executives doubted that the stolen election claims were accurate, but persisted in broadcasting them.
The disclosures that Dominion has made as part of its discovery process have been absolutely breathtaking. For example, Murdock regretted that the network’s hosts endorsed stolen-election claims when irrefutable proof exists that the 2020 election was one of the most honest and well-run ever.
As a reminder, Biden won the 2020 election with 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. Biden received 81.28 million popular votes, the most ever in a presidential election, to Trump’s 74.22 million.
The Dominion discovery documents show how Fox executives and hosts privately scoffed at the notion that the election was stolen even as the network continuously aired false information that the election was rigged as a way to pander to Trump and his base.
The Dominion high stakes lawsuit has serious implications for Fox financially — after all, $1.6 billion is not chump change even to a well-heeled organization like Fox.
Aside from that, however, is the impact on journalism and it raises fundamental ethical questions about the responsibilities a news organization has to its consumers not to disseminate and promote misinformation.
Another disclosure had Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2018 trying to stop West Virginia Republicans from nominating Don Blankenship, who had been convicted of violating mine safety standards during a lethal accident in one of his coal mines. They sought Murdoch’s intervention in the effort.
“Both Trump and McConnell are appealing for help to beat unelectable former mine owner who served time,” Murdoch wrote to executives at Fox News. He urged Fox’s top personalities Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham to “dump on him hard” because it “might save the day.” Because of Fox’s 11th-hour intervention, Blankenship said he lost the primary.
Fox disputed the information in the Dominion disclosures, saying the company “cherry picked” quotes and was waging a campaign of “distortions and misinformation to smear Fox News in an effort to trample free speech and freedom of the press.”
One of the main issues about Dominion vs. Fox is whether a news organization’s first responsibility is to its consumers or to its business interests and shareholders.
One of my guiding principles in my 63 years in the communication field has been to view newspapers and other public media in the same way as we view public utilities.
Yes, it is mandatory that they make a competitive profit to stay in business, but they also have an equal responsibility to serve the public interest. In the case of journalists, they must be fair, accurate and balanced in their news stories, and their editors and the publisher must be vigilant to assure that these objectives are achieved.
When it comes to well-compensated hosts whose job is to give opinions, a news organization must clearly indicate that opinion is not necessarily factual or contextual and that the views of the host are not necessarily those of management.
Let’s be clear: Fox commentators such as Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham are not paid to be fair and balanced. They are expected to have a strong and pointed viewpoint that favors one political side over the other, but they are expected to be accurate. Because of these memos, we now know that this is not the case. We suspected as much, but now we have the evidence.
Given the rare insight into internal memos among high-ranking Fox officials and hosts, we get a glimpse into the utter contempt the news organization has had for the truth. In a Nov. 19, 2020, email, 16 days after the presidential election, Murdock described Trump and his legal adviser, Rudy Giuliani, as “both increasingly mad” as they ramped up their accusations that the election was stolen.
Murdoch agreed that Trump was a “sore loser” and questioned the real dangers of what might happen if Trump becomes president again. As of this writing, Trump, who announced in November that he is running again, is considered the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination.
The comments from popular Fox talk-show host Carlson are particularly revealing. Carlson was concerned that if Fox didn’t play its cards properly when it came to dealing with Trump and his base in the election’s aftermath that it “could easily destroy us.”
Trump’s one-time love for all things Fox has waned considerably since last November, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that the feeling is mutual among some of the top-ranking Fox officials.
It apparently is affecting Fox’s business, which is a major concern, and the company is scrambling to see how to proceed as the 2024 election comes increasingly closer.
On Jan. 4, 2021, two days before the assault on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., Carlson sent this text: “We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait.”
Carlson then went on to say, “I hate him passionately.” As for Trump’s four years in office, Carlson said, “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But, come on, there really isn’t an upside to Trump.”
Trump and his allies have been brutal in their characterization of Murdoch, Fox’s 91-year-old chairman, and his executives. In March, Trump posted on his social media platform this characterization of them: “a “group of MAGA-hating globalist RINOS (Republicans in Name Only), who are aiding and abetting the destruction of America.”
The Dominion case also raises the age-old journalistic question of whether any news organization can truly be objective. “Objectivity is a word made up by some journalism professor,” chided former Fox TV talk show host Geraldo Rivera.
He is not alone in his belief that journalists cannot possibly be objective. They are a product of their background, numerous outside stimuli and many other complex forces and factors. To believe that journalists can somehow scrub themselves clean of this baggage as they write a story is the height of hypocrisy, critics claim.
With Fox in the forefront, many news organizations have emphasized that advocacy journalism – where a journalist takes a point of view when writing even news stories — and on public journalism — where a news organization involves itself in setting the agenda for national or community involvement – has made objectivity a vestige of journalism’s past.
There are, of course, many dissenters – I among them. I prefer to believe that, when writing a news story, objectivity is a goal to be pursued but never achieved. It reminds me of the advice a high school teacher once gave me: “Always shoot for the stars, for even if you don’t reach them, you’re sure to pick up some star dust along the way.” In a similar manner, if we don’t reach our goal of objectivity, we are committed to coming as close as we can while picking up valuable lessons with each try. In an ideal world, journalists would achieve the lofty goals of objectivity, fairness, balance and accuracy on every single try. In the real world, they don’t, but it should make them that much more determined to try harder the next time.
Even if a reporter were to lose his or her objectivity to the passions of an issue, the story must still go through the hands of dispassionate editors and others — we call them the gatekeepers — before it gets into print or on the air, thus ensuring the principles of fairness and balance.
At news organizations such as Fox, journalists are exhorted to toe the conservative line and to shoehorn the news into these constrictive compartments to pander to those who champion these ideologies to the exclusion of other points of view.
Public discourse and understanding are ill-served by these extremes of coverage, but these approaches are what are selling to an ever-polarized political society.
Thanks to the Dominion disclosures, we now know that Fox’s leadership believed that protecting its brand as a Trump enabler was more important than being honest with its audience.
BRUCE FRASSINELLI is the former publisher of The Palladium-Times. He served as a governor of the Rotary Club District 7150 (Central NY) from July 2001 to June 2002.