The Rot and Greed Inside Fox “News”

Fox “News” is in the news because a lawsuit revealed what the company’s leaders think of their viewers, i.e. they prefer comforting lies to truth and if Fox doesn’t feed them enough comforting lies, they’ll change the channel and Fox won’t make as much money.

Brian Stelter explains (behind the Atlantic’s paywall):

The basic story of Fox News and the 2020 election is well understood. Fox’s relatively small news operation covered the vote count accurately; this coverage infuriated President D____ T____, the MAGA base, and Fox’s opinion stars; some viewers temporarily flipped to further-right outlets, such as Newsmax; and Fox panicked.

But thanks to Dominion Voting Systems, which is pursuing a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox, we now know that the network’s sense of crisis was even more intense than it appeared from outside. With the case careening toward trial, a court filing [last week] revealed some of what Dominion found during the discovery process, including eye-popping messages from Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Fox’s senior management. “Getting creamed by CNN!” Fox’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, wrote to its top executive after seeing the overnight ratings on November 8. “Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it.”

He was right. Some of Fox’s top shows began broadcasting a better story, one that its viewers did want to watch: a conspiracy-laden tale about crooked Democrats stealing an election. Dominion is arguing that Fox knew full well that [the] voter-fraud allegations were bunk, but promoted the lies anyway.

Whether or not Dominion prevails in court, and many experts believe it will, the lawsuit is already forcing an ethical reckoning over Fox’s disrespect of its audience. Hour after hour, day after day, Fox stars kept signaling to viewers that T____ might still win the election not because they thought he would, but because they were worried about their ratings. And we all witnessed the consequences on January 6….

On November 12, 2020, nearly a week after Joe Biden clinched the presidency, … Hannity pretended that the outcome was still in doubt. He said the election was not fair. He cited “outstanding votes that have yet to be counted” and “more reports of dead people voting from beyond the grave.” And, crucially, he talked at length about Dominion….

The Fox News correspondent Jacqui Heinrich … had the audacity to tweet the truth. She wrote that “top election infrastructure officials”—including some in [the current] administration—had issued a statement saying “there is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.”

… Carlson flagged Heinrich’s tweet and told Hannity, “Please get her fired.” Why? Because her minor Twitter fact-check of an out-of-control president was exactly the sort of thing that Fox’s fan base could not stand to see.

It needs to stop immediately, like tonight,” Carlson wrote. “It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Hannity replied and said he had already sent the accurate and thus offending tweet to Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott.

Sean texted me,” Scott wrote to two colleagues…. Scott was bothered too. She worried that reporters at other outlets would notice Heinrich’s tweet: “She has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted”….

The new legal filing by Dominion is such a showstopper [because] we can read exactly what the leaders and stars of Fox News really think. This is my biggest takeaway: In the days after Biden won the election, while T____ tried to start the steal by shouting “Stop the Steal,” the most powerful people at Fox News were not concerned about [informing their audience or] the health of U.S. democracy. They were concerned about Fox’s brand and their own bottom line.

Stelter has talked to people at Fox:

A senior staffer at Fox railed against the network’s journalists and math wizards who had called Arizona for Biden, calling them “arrogant fucks”.

[A] former morning-show producer told me, “We were deathly afraid of our audience leaving, deathly afraid of pissing them off.”

A veteran staffer [said] “I feel like Fox is being held hostage by its audience”…

Sources at Fox [have] told me to think of it not as a network per se, but as a profit machine. They feared doing anything that would disrupt the machine. 

Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, also describes Fox “News” as a “machine”:

The latest filing by Dominion Voting Systems in its defamation suit against Fox nails something critics have long argued for. Fox is not a news organization. It’s something else. But what is this thing? I will try to answer that.

The Dominion suit establishes that Fox stars (like Tucker Carlson) and executives (like CEO Suzanne Scott) were fearful and enraged when some of their own people blundered into delivering a true and accurate report about the 2020 election. Think about that. When its own talent reported the facts truthfully, the result was a company crisis….

If Fox is not a news organization … and it is not “opinion” either (because the Dominion filing shows the hosts are frightened to share their real opinions) then what is it, exactly? Some common answers: It’s entertainment. It’s propaganda. No, it’s just ratings.

[It’s] the commercial arm of a political movement that has taken control of the Republican Party. The product is resentment news. Current ways to resent. Success in that market makes for political power. [It’s] a kind of machine.

By “machine” I mean to evoke both the manufacture of politicized grievance for fun and profit, and the kind of machine through which Richard Daley rose to power in mid 20th century. A machine in the sense of the Cook County Democratic Machine. Again: not a news organization.

Dominion’s filings describe a time when the audience took charge of the resentment machine. Power traded hands for a bit. Viewer backlash from a correct call in Arizona felt ruinous. Stars with shows and executives nominally in charge of Fox saw how weak their positions were.

Fox has to accept that its powers are limited. The Fox audience can veto events that in the rest of the world unquestionably occurred. You’re not a news organization if your audience’s refusal to accept what happened prevents [you from telling them] what happened.

Both the Republican Party and Murdoch’s fear-and-loathing machine know they cannot control the core audience for commercialized resentment and white nationalism, which will turn on anyone who interferes in the free exercise of its many hatreds.

We are faced with a vicious circle. There is an audience for right-wing fake news. Fox cultivates that audience by giving it fake news. That makes the audience want more fake news. So that’s what Fox gives them. We might think that Fox’s audience will shrink when they realize they’re being lied to and otherwise manipulated. But since they get their news from Fox “News”, they’ll probably never hear about it and won’t believe it if they do.