The Fox News story, should it ever make its way into a courtroom, has the makings of history. It could help define the acceptable limits of journalistic expression at a time when many newsrooms are losing their way and social media is expanding its influence while breaking long established rules of the road. Of course, it has also been argued that defining those limits might be injurious to a free press, which enjoys living with fewer guidelines. The issue in any case would have been aired, discussed and better understood. A trial could also help educate millions on the gross failings of Fox News and the advantages of a truly “fair and balanced” presentation of the news. And perhaps it could open the door to a possible change in our national dialogue about what’s good and bad for this troubled land.
Much will yet be learned about what’s behind Rupert Murdoch’s latest eye-catching drama with the departure of anchor Tucker Carlson. Other moves may follow, other headlines created. But unless Murdoch changes his whole cast of characters and gives the new anchors a fresh, yet old-fashioned, operating mandate to stop choosing and supporting political personalities like Trump and to try covering the news, not making it, a Fox News without Tucker Carlson will still be featuring the same cast and the same script.
However, the script may yet change again. Fox News did not make its billions by covering the news — though it did on occasion. It made them by catering to a large segment of disgruntled white, mostly Christian Americans, who feared “others” were surreptitiously seizing power in “their” country and had to be stopped. Though things have begun to change in the suddenly embarrassed Fox universe, there is still little reason to believe Fox News will soon be driven to emulate the journalistic ethics of the New York Times.
Fox’s billionaire owner reluctantly made a few big moves, dramatically seizing the headlines, because he felt the need to clean house, not to sell or abandon it. Faced with weeks of courtroom drama, in which he would have had to testify and explain Fox New’s dissemination of Trump-inspired lies, and Carlson would have had to justify his on-air manufacturing of fake conspiracies, Murdoch chose to swallow his pride, cut Carlson, pay Dominion, and try to persuade the rest of the world that Fox News was turning a page in its history, and was moving on.
But, based on my experience as someone who did commentaries for Fox News from 2010 to 2015, quitting when it embraced rather than covered Trump’s first presidential campaign, I believe Fox News cannot change its spots with one or two dramatic changes in its leading personalities. Hannity and Ingraham and many others still carry the Fox flag, and they do so proudly.
Besides, because of its solid base of devoted viewers, who accept Fox News’s alternative universe of reality, Fox News’s financial base remains strong. Take but one example: the $787.5 million Fox must now pay Dominion is roughly one-fifth of Fox’s estimated quarterly revenue of $4.61 billion! There’s a mountain of cash that can still be banked for a rainy day in the Murdoch empire.
Dominion did not stand alone. Fox faces quite a few other challenging lawsuits. Smartmatic, like Dominion, another tech firm, is suing Fox for $2.7 billion. Given the precedent set by the Dominion case, Fox may be obliged to cut another fat check. In addition, Fox shareholders, arguing the news division wittingly broadcast false election claims, thus sabotaging a free election, have also sued or are considering suing the parent corporation, which may have to pay them too.
Fox seems determined to prevail, and to continue violating journalistic ethics — at least for the time being.
- On April 19th, 2023, Fox News settled its case with Dominion voting. (Back to top)
- See for instance: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/04/04/unique-damaging-role-fox-news-plays-american-media/ (Back to top)