Opinion | Fox does what foxes do

How Fox News uses deceit and hyperbole to boost ratings and protect brand

Published by Matthew Glover, Date: April 5, 2023
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In March 2021, Dominion Voting Systems launched a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit at Fox News and Fox Corp. for claiming their voting machines helped rig the 2020 presidential election to boost ratings.

Dominion also launched a judicial investigation that would unknowingly reveal not even Fox News believes the election was rigged and that its ratings matter more than the truth.

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidential term, Fox was his champion. He interviewed with Fox personalities eight times more than any other network, and he granted zero interviews to “fake news” CNN.

Fox knew that by echoing what the president said on air since the beginning, they would retain his supporters for at least the next four years.

So, they often avoided asking him difficult questions like the other networks would have. Fox knows their audience, and it is not hard to convince them of what they already believe.

Fox could not report in Trump’s favor forever, though.

Republicans gathered around the television on election night most likely watched Fox News become the first network to correctly call Arizona for Joe Biden. The call caused other conservative networks like Newsmax and One America News to see a temporary boost in ratings before viewers switched back to Fox.

The shrinking viewership caused internal conflict within the organization to spiral. Tucker Carlson said minutes later on his show “there has been a great deal of pushback from the president, his staff and the governor of Arizona.”

He criticized the decision desk, claiming there were more than 1 million ballots to be counted, and he did not understand how the decision was made or how the math works out.

After the network called Arizona for Biden, Trump’s political advisor Jason Miller called Fox News asking them to retract the call, which signaled the first flip from red to blue between the 2016 and 2020 elections.

Trump also tweeted multiple criticisms of Fox, and his supporters protested in Phoenix outside vote counting centers condemning the network.

Fox provided Trump with an easy way to communicate with his supporters. Fox knew when Trump was watching because he would tweet about events being discussed on primetime shows, which he knew his supporters were watching.

Bill Sammon, a high-ranking editor at Fox News, texted former colleague Chris Stirewalt and said, “In my 22 years affiliated with Fox, this is the closest thing I’ve seen to an existential crisis – at least journalistically.”

Stirewalt, a former Fox politics editor who played a key part in calling Arizona for Biden, replied, “What I see us doing is losing the silent majority of viewers as we chase the nuts off a cliff.”

Both editors are no longer employed by Fox.

According to The Wall Street Journal, a private group message between Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham days later showed the hosts were still upset about the Arizona call despite the decision desk calling the state correctly. The messages were made public in the Dominion lawsuit.

WSJ is owned by News Corp. where Rupert Murdoch is the executive chairman. Murdoch also chairs Fox Corp. and Fox News.

If the decision desk called the state correctly, why were the hosts upset?

As the most-watched cable news network on television for seven straight years, Fox News has built a brand and ratings which they have fought harder to protect than our democracy itself.

Fox News distinguishes itself from the “media mob” with a culture that does not tolerate dissent. When Fox White House correspondent Jacqui Heinrich fact-checked a Trump tweet clarifying that top election officials said, “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted, lost votes or was compromised,” Carlson called for her termination.

“Please get her fired,” he said in a text chain with Hannity and Ingraham on Nov. 12. “Seriously…What the f[***]? I’m actually shocked… It needs to stop, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

Carlson’s quote captures the network’s ethics perfectly. Fox has attacked fact-checkers before when they highlight anything contradictory to Trump’s words. When one of their own fact-checks him, it spells disaster for the company since its strong partisan reporting has alienated every other audience but Trump’s.

Previous conversations also made public in the Dominion lawsuit show Heinrich was only saying what hosts and executives had been thinking.

On Nov. 16, Carlson said Trump ally Sidney Powell was “lying” about election fraud and that her claims without evidence were “shockingly reckless,” according to USA Today. Ingraham, a former attorney, also found her claims “unbelievably offensive.”

In his Aug. 31 deposition, Hannity said regarding Powell’s election fraud claims that he “did not believe it for one second,” according to the 192-page lawsuit. This would explain why Hannity said on his Nov. 30 show, “I don’t vet the information on this program that I give out,” and later redacted the claim.

On Nov. 9, 2020, he said on his show, “Let’s let the people tell their stories. Let’s let the American people decide if we believe them or not. Let’s look at, for example, what the law says and let the courts do their constitutional job to adjudicate.”

One month later, Republicans had lost more than 50 election challenges. The courts have done their constitutional job and upheld the will of the people.

Fox News claims Dominion “cherry-picked” quotes absent of key context and even misattributed them at times. They also said they were reporting on newsworthy allegations made by Trump associates, and the lawsuit is an attack on press freedom.

Fox also claims Dominion vastly overstates their own value and cannot directly tie losses to Fox coverage.

However, Fox’s enthusiastic reporting quickly shifted to endorsing. In his Nov. 9 opening monologue, Carlson floated many voter fraud accusations without providing evidence and admitting “false claims of fraud can be every bit as destructive as the fraud itself.”

On Nov. 12, Lou Dobbs invited Rudolph Giuliani, another Trump ally and his lawyer, on the show where he spewed lies about Dominion, according to the lawsuit.

Dobbs replied, “It’s stunning…they have no ability to audit meaningfully the votes that are cast because the servers are somewhere else…This looks to me like it is the end of what has been a four-and-a-half—the endgame to a four-and-a-half year-long effort to overthrow the president of the United States.”

In his Dec. 13 and 14 deposition, Murdoch said several Fox Hosts including Hannity, Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro had all endorsed claims that the election was stolen on the air.

Murdoch calls them “commentators” instead of hosts or journalists. Perhaps he considers them no longer worthy of the title, or he recognizes his network no longer reports objectively. Former Fox employees and guests also believe the network has become simply “a mouthpiece for the president.”

Some hosts may be happier without Trump constantly making headlines. Other texts revealed in the Dominion lawsuit show Carlson never liked Trump despite frequently praising him as president.

“What he’s good at is destroying things,” Carlson said in a text days after the election. “He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.

“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” Carlson said in a Jan. 4, 2021, text. “I truly can’t wait. I hate him passionately.”

Outside the newsroom, journalists are still average Americans entitled to a partisan opinion. However, if a commentator continuously praises a political candidate on air, their viewers may reasonably conclude they believe in what they are reporting.

This is not always the case. On Sept. 15, 2021, Carlson devoted much of his first 20 minutes to Biden’s COVID-19 response, saying the rules force people into submission.

“You can’t allow people to force you to take drugs that you don’t want or that you don’t need,” he said. “If you allow people to force you to take drugs you don’t want, you’re done. They own you. You’re no longer free, period.”

However, Fox started requiring employees to report evidence of their vaccination status in October 2021. According to AP, more than 90% of full-time employees had been fully vaccinated.

Then, in a memo the week of Sept. 13, 2021, Fox Corp. began requiring all unvaccinated employees to be tested each day to work in company facilities.

In people ages 18 to 65, there is a causal relationship between exposure to Fox News and lower vaccination rates, according to a 2022 Centre for Economic Policy Research study.

Fox was later attacked by former employee Eric Bolling who now works for fellow conservative outlet Newsmax.

“So while Fox hosts bemoan and complain about the liberals who are forcing Americans to get vaccinated,” he said, “they themselves are doing the same thing – and that is the textbook definition of hypocrisy.”

Fox News also has a history of allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination. Fox producer Abby Grossberg added even more when she filed two lawsuits against the company on March 20, alleging Fox lawyers coerced her into giving misleading testimony during her September deposition in the Dominion lawsuit.

She said the lawyers coached her in a “coercive and intimidating manner” to avoid mentioning prominent male executives and talent to protect them from blame while putting her own reputation at risk.

Grossberg alleges the network’s disregard for women left her and Bartiromo too understaffed to properly vet claims made against Dominion on air.

At times, she was the only full-time employee dedicated to Bartiromo’s Sunday morning show, she said, and she and other women endured blatant and open sexism from coworkers and superiors.

Sexual harassment claims have been rampant for years from the top down at Fox News. Bolling, the Newsmax commentator, was fired in 2017 after an independent investigation into allegations that he sent lewd photographs to three female colleagues. In 2016, a co-founder and CEO was fired with several sexual harassment allegations.

“That’s what the culture is there,” Grossberg said in a March 20 interview. “They don’t respect or value women.”

As part of the Dominion lawsuit, texts between Grossberg and Bartiromo were released. One message from Bartiromo asked Grossberg if she thought she should have pushed Trump to answer if he would peacefully transition from the presidency in an interview.

Grossberg replied, “To be honest, our audience doesn’t want to hear about a peaceful transition.”

Since Grossberg filed the lawsuits, Fox has filed their own lawsuit against her, and she has been placed on forced administrative leave, according to her lawyer.

Public defamation cases against news media are famously hard to win. For Dominion to win, they must prove actual malice, which means Fox News knowingly aired false claims and recklessly disregarded the truth.

Fox is correct that losing the case would have vast negative implications for broader news media. The news industry is driven by tight deadlines and competition to report first, but outlets know that sacrificing accuracy or ethics for speed will cost their credibility and audience.

Fox, however, has leaned into partially accurate and inflated reporting that is often too extreme for even center-leaning conservatives and Republicans who have stopped supporting Trump.

Fox is not the only offender but the most dangerous in today’s media climate. They should be held accountable for spreading misinformation and disinformation but via ratings and viewership instead of the law.

Fox has shown repeatedly by saying one thing and doing another that their brand and ratings are more important than American democracy. Republicans must find a more reliable news network.

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