CLARENCE PAGE: Can Fox News handle the truth? As long as it pleases the viewers
It is understandable that the popular news channel would try to please the conservative audience they have built so successfully, but not at the expense of reality.
February 28, 2023 - 9:00 pm
An old cynical newsperson jokes about not “letting facts get in the way of a good story.” In today’s world, one might just as easily say, don’t let facts get in the way of audience ratings or viral internet surfing clicks.
Such is the newsroom scene unfolding in the case that Dominion Voting Systems filed against Fox News for what Dominion says were the network’s false claims of election fraud by the voting machine firm.
Dominion, armed with correspondence between some of the network’s biggest stars and executives, charges that Fox News knew the stolen election claims were a big lie, yet continued to report them as if they were legitimate — as they pushed narratives to entice back their wavering audience.
For that, the Dominion brief requests, first, a summary judgment against Fox News for defamation and, second, the breathtaking sum of $1.6 billion.
Yes, that’s a lot of moola, but the stakes are high. The potential damage that charges of election fraud can bring to a voting machine company is so great that one should be careful about making such charges.
But, no less breathtaking than the charges and potential damages is the inside view of Fox News laid out in the 192-page document filed recently. Seldom does one see, thanks to internal messages, such a clear-cut case of people who say one thing even as they know that something else is the truth.
The document lays out how senior figures at Fox News, from Fox founder Rupert Murdoch on down, knew immediately after the election that claims of voter fraud, particularly those aimed at Dominion, were false.
Yet, unlike past election nights where we have seen newsrooms celebrate being first to call the winner correctly, this one was viewed internally as something of a crisis, the unpleasant task of telling the audience news that many were anything but eager to hear: Arizona had given Biden enough votes to win the election.
Anchor-host Tucker Carlson texted his producer: “Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience? An alternative like NewsMax could be devastating to us.”
NewsMax, a news channel oriented further to the right than Fox, was also on the mind of fellow show host Sean Hannity. In an exchange with fellow hosts Carlson and Laura Ingraham, he lamented the “incalculable” damage the Arizona projection did to the Fox News brand and worried about rising competition from newer further-right outlets.
Jack Nicholson’s showstopping line from “A Few Good Men” — “You can’t handle the truth!” — echoes in the court filing in which the anchors expressed deep skepticism of Sidney Powell, one of the attorneys spreading the false fraud allegations, even as they continued to air her views. Ingraham described her as a “complete nut.” Hannity said in a deposition that the “whole narrative that Sidney was pushing, I did not believe it for one second.”
So why continue to serve it up to your audience, one might ask? Former Fox executive Bill Sammon seemed to offer the most on-point answer: “It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” he observed in a statement that probably should be posted prominently in every journalism classroom in the country.
Instead, some Fox folks tried to have it both ways. At one point, Carlson and Hannity demanded that Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich be fired after she fact-checked one of Trump’s tweets spreading the false election fraud claims about Dominion.
She wasn’t fired, but the offending tweet was deleted.
In another email, a different Fox executive feared what he called “conspiratorial reporting” at Newsmax, a criticism that also sounded like a thinly veiled expression of envy.
“We’ve really cornered Fox from the right,” Chris Ruddy, NewsMax founder and friend of Trump, told The Associated Pres after the election.
Small wonder, then, that at least one Fox executive said the “conspiratorial” approach “might be exactly what the disgruntled FNC viewer is looking for.” That executive later warned, “Do not ever give viewers a reason to turn us off. Every topic and guest must perform.”
P.T. Barnum could hardly have said it better. It is understandable that the popular news channel would try to please the conservative audience they have built so successfully, but not at the expense of reality.
Contact Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.