Will Fox learn its lesson from $787M Dominion settlement? | Heather MacDonald

The evidence showed that Fox News knew the election wasn’t stolen

April 26, 2023 6:30 am

Now former Fox News host Tucker Carlson discusses ‘Populism and the Right’ during the National Review Institute’s Ideas Summit at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel March 29, 2019 in Washington, DC. Carlson talked about a large variety of topics including dropping testosterone levels, increasing rates of suicide, unemployment, drug addiction and social hierarchy at the summit, which had the theme ‘The Case for the American Experiment.’ (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Last week, Fox News and Dominion Voting Systems avoided going to trial over defamation charges by agreeing to a settlement of an eye-popping $787 million.

Many in the public felt that while the massive monetary windfall was nice, the delicious schadenfreude from a trial would have been priceless. A sizable portion of the nation felt disappointed when Fox News executives and star personalities no longer had to take the stand and publicly own up to their deceit. But let’s be clear:

The $787 million was ransom. And Fox News was the hostage.

What Fox Knew 

It almost hurts my feelings as a liberal to come to the conclusion that host Tucker Carlson, who left the channel on Monday, may not be completely crazy. Leading up to the trial it became clear through private correspondence made public that Carlson, among many other Fox News personalities and executives, were not on board with Donald Trump or The Big Lie.

Carlson: “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.”

Suzanna Scott, Fox News CEO: “[Fact checking Trump’s lies] is bad business and there clearly is a lack of understanding what is happening in these shows. The audience is furious, and we are just feeding them material.”

Fox news VP Raj Shah: “We are not concerned with losing market share to CNN or MSNBC right now. Our concern is Newsmax and One America News Network … I’d like to get honest/deeper feedback from Fox viewers on the brand, the handling of the election, if they feel like they have been somehow betrayed by the network.”

The evidence showed that Fox News knew the election wasn’t stolen, and many Fox employees had the instinct to tell the truth out of the gate.

There was in-fighting, soul searching, and jobs lost in the chaos of crafting Fox’s eventual participation in The Big Lie. It was their viewers who forced their hand. They held Fox hostage, and demanded that they be told, not what happened, but rather what they wanted to hear. Fox News had no choice but to justify their viewer’s misplaced outrage and bend the knee to keep their viewers loyal.

And that loyalty hasn’t come cheap. Dominion, Smartmatic, shareholders, and election workers have all filed lawsuits against Fox News. Collectively, the lawsuits are likely to cost upwards of a billion dollars, money Fox News only had to spend because their viewership is as corrupt as they are.

Window Shopping 

It was a close call. The hoard of zombies Fox News created briefly debated eating their brains too. The irony is that it was Fox News themselves who taught their audience that truth and accountability do not matter. It is a well-documented fact how little importance is placed on follow-up in the Fox News ecosystem.

It is this signature lack of follow-up that prepped the Fox News audience long ago to accept outlandish statements, never question the source, or look for an eventual conclusion. It is akin to emotional window shopping. Viewers get to view tragedy and victimization without actually having to experience it.

Obama never did show up and take their guns, embedded ISIS fighters never popped up in a dramatic synchronized flourish across the nation as promised, the migrant caravan never flooded the streets of their hometown, and no death panels ever killed their grandparents. It doesn’t matter. Those stories served their purpose to uphold a far-right-wing narrative of victimization that feeds their righteous anger.

It’s this same rationale that causes conservatives to confidently shout “go woke, go broke” while boycotting Bud Ligh,t but conveniently ignoring the fact that their past temper tantrums did not noticeably affect the finances of Disney, Nike, the NFL, Coke, or Carhartt. The feedback loop in their closed media ecosystem provides a sense of control when reality doesn’t.

Choosing Fake News

Many academic studies have concluded that conservatives engage with fake news more often than their liberal counterparts. A study earlier this year published in the journal Nature Human Behavior replicated those findings and took it a step farther (1). They hypothesized if participants were financially incentivized to correctly pinpoint fake news, they would be better at it.

They were correct. When given a financial incentive to correctly spot fake news headlines, conservatives were able to identify the fake news just as frequently as liberals. What does this mean?

It means that a lack of knowledge is not the only factor causing conservatives to gravitate towards fake news. It is also a choice.

It is a choice to engage with fake news online. It is a choice to spread misinformation. And Fox News viewers made the choice to reject the truth of the 2020 election and insist on being served more of the comforting propaganda that has become their only refuge from a world increasingly united against their narrow brand of morality. Fox News and their audience are locked into a mutually destructive relationship.

The Cost of Doing Business

Don’t be fooled, Fox News did not win.

Yes, they skated by without the embarrassment of a trial and without having to give anything even close to resembling an apology. But pretending to own the libs has a hefty price tag, and they will continue to pay a high cost to maintain the cruel symbiotic marriage between viewer and host, truth and fiction.

It’s not to say that Fox is any less influential. Fox News will continue to churn out cortisol-inducing headlines 24/7, but it won’t be because they believe them, but because they have no choice.

The demands of their viewers to change the programming after the 2020 election proves the power dynamic has shifted, and that Fox and its viewers are complicit in the damage caused by misinformation.

Like a drug addict always searching for a bigger high, the stakes of the lies and contorted facts will only have to get bigger to keep up with viewer’s ever shortening attention spans. The toxic culture of Fox will continue to poison everything it touches including the inner workings of the very media conglomerate that created it.

A since-fired Fox News exec put it best, “It’s remarkable how weak ratings makes good journalists do bad things. In my 22 years affiliated with Fox, this is the closest thing I’ve seen to an existential crisis.”

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Heather MacDonald
Heather MacDonald

Opinion contributor Heather MacDonald, of Camp Hill, Pa., is a co-founder of The Good Trouble Project, a central Pennsylvania real estate agent, and a former Democratic candidate for the 103rd House District.