A single sentence from Erik Wemple’s recent column for The Washington Post tells you everything you need to know about the Fox News flap over internal emails admitting that the network knew it was lying to viewers about a stolen election.
“The network had called Arizona on election night for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, a move regarded as treason by the network’s MAGA crowd, which declared viewers would flee to the competition.”
The emphasis is mine. As Wemple, the Post’s media critic noted, network executives were in a panic, worried they would lose viewers to other upstart cable outlets.
This is a normal consideration for a business ― and make no mistake: Fox News is a business. No business wants to lose customers to the competition, especially after secrets become public fodder. But what terrified Fox executives wasn’t the “secrets” that the network’s biggest stars knew all along they were peddling total bovine excrement. It was that the revelations in the Dominion lawsuit defied viewer expectations.
Columnist Mike Kelly’s accusation in a piece for USA Today unwittingly makes the point.
“This wasn’t journalism,” Kelly writes. “It was consumer fraud at its worst. The desire for money trumped truth.”
Actually, no, it wasn’t consumer fraud. True, it wasn’t journalism, and in that sense, the Fox business model has regularly committed fraud against the truth. But the business model for Fox was never journalism. Rather, it was, and is, an advertising distribution system whose primary function is to deliver an audience expectation for an audience it identified, targeted and cultivated. It was a business model that began the way many businesses do, as a marketing solution.
Before the network’s inception, the marketplace had a hole. It wasn’t the lack of “conservative” journalism. It was the lack of a resource that could tell people of a certain mindset what they wanted to hear. Journalism doesn’t do that, but at the Fox network, that is business as usual.
Whether Rupert Murdoch and CEO Roger Ailes realized it when they sought to fill that market hole and exploited a fundamental human weakness: a desire for approval, for meaning. People like to be told they have value, that what they believe is right and good, even if it is wrong and bad. That’s what the Fox cable audience craved, and the network gave it to them in droves.
Fox wasn’t defrauding its consumers; it was servicing them. If that meant delivering broadcasts with distortions, omissions or outright fabrications — so-called “alternative facts” — so be it.
We make a mistake in thinking of Fox as a news channel; it’s not. It’s television, more precisely, a television programming format, one no different from a sitcom, a crime drama or a reality show. Each of those television formats comes with an expectation. If a program doesn’t deliver that expectation, the audience reacts, and not in a good way. They might even regard it as treason, which is the very description applied to Fox viewers after the network called Arizona for Joe Biden on election night.
Think of it like this: If you turned on your favorite classic rock radio station and suddenly heard Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande coming out of the speakers, you’d start wondering if someone changed the presets in your car. When you realized that wasn’t the case, that perhaps the station changed its music format, you’d be unhappy, maybe even angry. Why? Because the station no longer met your expectations. Even worse, no one warned you that the station would no longer be meeting that expectation.
When that happens, listeners often flip out. “What did you guys do to my radio station?” they’ll say. “Where’s my favorite DJ?” “You guys suck!”
We’ve all had that experience. Every radio broadcaster has been on the receiving end of it. To paraphrase 17th Century British playwright William Congreve, “Hell hath no fury like a listener scorned.” Or a viewer. Especially one deeply tethered to an extreme set of values and beliefs.
Executives, hosts and producers at Fox knew exceedingly well: to report that the 2020 election was fair, and even worse, to report that Donald Trump was peddling a lie, would be tantamount to blasphemy. They had already endured the backlash from viewers angry the network had called Arizona for Joe Biden on election night. In the days that followed, had they dared report the truth about the election results, those Jan. 6 rioters might have gotten a head start and assaulted the Fox network headquarters first.
Every media operation, every radio station, every print publication, every writer, actor, comedian, you name it, creates an audience expectation. We know what to expect, whether we turn on the PBS News Hour or Ellen DeGeneres.
The danger, particularly for Fox or any other ideologically driven operation, is that they created a trap. Fox has one product: Conservatives are good, and liberals are evil. There’s an audience for that kind of thinking and for nearly three decades, Fox not only cornered that market but also fostered it, augmented and cultivated it. You might even say they were groomers.
Fox knew something else, too: They had to take great care not to broadcast anything that might offend that audience.
Take Nancy Pelosi. She is a history-making figure. The first woman to serve as House Speaker and one of the most powerful leaders ever to hold the gavel. She was exceptionally good at her job and a force in Washington politics.
Plenty of people will disagree, mostly because they just don’t like her, but you know who would agree? Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and any of the other Fox hosts. They’re not stupid. In the privacy of their own thoughts, when the cameras are off, they know Pelosi has been an extraordinary figure in political history, and they know people like Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene couldn’t hold a candle to her. But they can never say that during their broadcasts. Their viewers would revolt.
That’s the trap. They simply cannot risk being honest because that would be bad for business. When you become trapped like that, lying becomes a survival mechanism and business as usual.
That’s why Fox is in a panic. It’s why they told a judge that Dominion had no evidence to support its “staggering” $1.6 billion damages claim in their defamation lawsuit over the network’s coverage of election-rigging conspiracy theories. Of course they had to say that in court. You’ll say anything to protect your business interests, whether in court or on the air. And by telling their viewers what they wanted to hear — that the election was stolen and those Dominion voting machines must have been part of it — they were simply protecting their business interests.
It’s why Fox fired Chris Stirewalt, the politics editor who became an on-air face of the network’s decision to call Arizona for Joe Biden in 2020. The network called Stirewalt’s firing the following January (along with about a dozen other colleagues) a “restructuring.” Don’t you believe it. His firing was likely a way to get back in the good graces of viewers who began seeking other, safer spaces that would deliver their expectations.
I’d like to think rational consumers of current events wouldn’t do that. When the conventional wisdom of a blue wall collapsed and signaled Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the presidential election of 2016, her supporters may have been shocked, and even angry over the prospect of who would be their next president, but no one concocted a series of lies and absurdities to deny reality. No one called The New York Times in outrage for reporting Clinton’s defeat, or abandoned CNN for a new “safe space.”
If, however, those and similar outlets had lied as badly, as embarrassingly as Fox did, you wouldn’t blame their consumers for the lack of trust that would follow and the likelihood they would seek more reliable sources. But that would be because they were lied to, not because they weren’t told what they wanted to hear. For those consumers, such lies would have destroyed a bond of trust, not a safe space.
Some argue that all media push an agenda with their own narrative, and you’ve surely run into people who claim that outlets like The New York Times or NPR are just part of the liberal media.
They overlook three things.
Have you ever noticed that the people alleging those criticisms are themselves so biased in their conservative perspective that they consider anything to the left of Attila the Hun to be too liberal? It’s a great irony: Politically biased critics criticizing the media for being politically biased. The real bias is amongst the critics, not the entities they criticize.
Second, there is a difference when the owner of a network and its popular talking heads knowingly push lies on their audience, telling them they were true when they knew they were false. When spreading the lies perpetrated by a sitting president leads to unrest to the point of an insurrection, the lies have gone too far. There are no words to justify or diminish what Fox did.
Third, mistakes happen, and reputable outlets correct them. Publicly. It’s clearly marked, “Correction,” either in a specific section or at the bottom of the story (as happened with this writer last week). Listen to how hosts Ailsa Change and Mary Louise Kelly correct a reporting error on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
When mistakes happen, you have two choices: You either accept them and learn from them, or you double down and deny them. Guess what Fox did.
Fox committed three grievous errors: They lied. They refused to concede that they lied. They defended their lies as truth.
“It knowingly sacrificed its integrity to maintain its market share,” New York Times columnist Dave French wrote. I would suggest that one first needs integrity in order to sacrifice it, but that’s another matter.
A radio consultant once told me she had talk show clients willing to be whatever a potential employer wanted them to be. “I can be liberal; I can be conservative. Whatever they want.” At the talk radio station where I worked, where I was a political outlier, the program manager once told me, “Try not to upset the furniture.” As in, toe the political line.
I couldn’t do that. I now work in a different industry and write when I can.
For journalists at Fox, and the network truly has some excellent journalists, I would think it’s a terrible dilemma. You work in a profession you love — and it is a profession — but you have to take a back seat to a network that defiles the core tenets of that profession. And you have to deal with the shame of having to defend yourself from justifiable criticism. We all have to make a living, but it can have a cost: Can you be a person of integrity while working at a company that so many feel has none?
What is the cost of lies? Dominion is seeking a judgment of $1.6 billion. I’m not sure that’s enough. They should demand that Fox air disclaimers to all their commentator programs at the beginning and at the end, letting viewers know that the opinions of the hosts are not based on facts and are only to provide affirmation, not information. Dominion should require that for the next month, every host, every day, admits to their lies and apologizes for uttering them. And a judge, if not Dominion itself, should write that disclaimer and apology. No one at Fox should have a hand in writing any of it.
That should be the cost of the lie, at least for the liars. Don’t hold your breath waiting for that to happen. Coverage of the story ranges from scant to nonexistent among conservative sources. Circle those wagons, boys! We can’t afford to burst anyone’s bubble!
Sadly, that’s another cost: Omission of an admission of guilt continues to allow the lie to live on and spread. Silence is consent.
But the cost goes far beyond the price the liar may one day pay and beyond, even, the people who believe the lie.
The riotous assault on the Capitol was entirely based on a lie. As a nation, we all paid a price, in reputation, money and blood.
Families have told countless stories of being torn apart by the grooming that Fox and other conservative media sources have done over the years to sisters, brothers, mothers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and children. The father who taught his sons to be critical thinkers was now a walking billboard for talking points he heard night after night from Fox news hosts. Family members disappointed in each other because they voted this way or that. Certain subjects were now off limits at holiday gatherings. Certain relatives would refuse to attend family functions, or were no longer invited. So much for those vaunted family values conservative outlets love to champion.
“What is the cost of lies?” asks the central character in the HBO dramatization of the Chernobyl disaster.
“It’s not that we’ll mistake them for the truth,” he says. “The real danger is that if we hear enough lies, then we no longer recognize the truth. What then?”
For Fox, it might mean an even greater danger: Business as usual.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Chris Stirewalt’s role in Fox News’ decision to call Arizona for Biden.