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How is Fox News Different From All Other Media?
All news outlets have their biases. This is something different.
I teach and study politics for a living; it is the nature of my field to assume that most political organizations do not act in an idealistic, honorable manner. The discipline’s cardinal assumption one makes is that powerful people want to stay in power. This assumption extends beyond conventional politicians to include those who cover politics for a living. The news media wants to retain relevancy.
That can lend itself to cynicism. Still, another basic, unspoken assumptions about the press is that the desire to maximize the audience does not contradict the incentive to, you know, tell the truth. One would presume that news outlets that knowingly report falsehoods or lies pay the price for doing so — and precisely for that reason, journalists have an incentive to avoid doing precisely that.
This is why the revelations from Dominion’s defamation lawsuit against Fox News are so disturbing. It is unsurprising that the likes of Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham knew that Trump’s claims of election fraud were baseless. Hypocrisy among the partisan chattering classes is hardly news.
Somewhat more surprising is that at Fox, the correlation between reporting the news accurately and reporting the news profitably was inverted. Consider Carlson’s pecuniary concern about the stock price of Fox News:
Fox News stars and executives were afraid of losing their audience, which started to defect to the conservative cable news alternatives Newsmax and OAN after Fox News called Arizona for Mr. Biden. And they seemed concerned with the impact that would have on the network’s profitability.
On Nov. 12, in a text chain with Ms. Ingraham and Mr. Hannity, Mr. Carlson pointed to a tweet in which a Fox reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, fact-checked a tweet from Mr. Trump referring to Fox broadcasts and said there was no evidence of voter fraud from Dominion.
“Please get her fired,” Mr. Carlson said. He added: “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
Or consider Rupert Murdoch’s deposition, in which he gives away the ballgame about why he did not intervene — even though he had the power to do so — in making Fox News cover the fact that Trump was lying about election fraud. Politico’s Jack Shafer is about as even-keeled as a media reporter gets, but his copy on this is pretty damning:
When other news networks called the election for Joe Biden before Fox, Murdoch expressed relief in an email to his son and fellow Fox executive, Lachlan. “We should and could have gone first but at least being second saves us a Trump explosion!” Fox was spared the immediate Trump explosion, but it came eventually as the network did not toe the Trump line on his election lies. He savaged the network on Twitter, writing, “@FoxNews daytime is virtually unwatchable, especially during the weekends. Watch @OANN, @newsmax, or almost anything else.” Viewers defected as instructed to the upstart news channels, which were flooding their schedules with sympathetic coverage to the stolen-election line. Now, in addition to Trump’s fury, Fox was fretting about viewer anger, and inside Fox, all was pandemonium. In testimony, Lachlan Murdoch said the drop of ratings would “keep me awake” at night….
Murdoch’s pursuit of power and money, and his deft combination of the two, has always been a naked secret for those who care to inquire. These latest court filings only strip the top layer of epidermis from his hide and expose his venal essence. As late as Jan. 26, 2021, Murdoch was still so fearful of Trump that he had not executed the pivot and was still allowing stolen-election crackpot (and loyal Fox advertiser) Mike “MyPillow” Lindell a platform on the network’s Tucker Carlson Tonight show. Why allow it? Presumably because he enjoys cashing Lindell’s fat checks. Questioned by Dominion’s attorneys, Murdoch agreed with the statement, “It is not red or blue, it is green.”
In the end, however, perhaps the most damning revelation comes from Peter Baker’s New York Times story of how Fox News responded to its coverage of the 2020 election. Fox was the first to call Arizona for Biden, and could have been the first network to call the entire election for Biden — but it wouldn’t do that:
Typically, it is a point of pride for a news network to be the first to project election winners. But Fox is no typical news network, and in the days following the 2020 vote, it was besieged with angry protests not only from President Donald J. Trump’s camp but from its own viewers because it had called the battleground state of Arizona for Mr. Biden. Never mind that the call was correct; Fox executives worried that they would lose viewers to hard-right competitors like Newsmax.
And so, on Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, Suzanne Scott, the chief executive of Fox News Media, and Jay Wallace, the network’s president, convened a Zoom meeting for an extraordinary discussion with an unusual goal, according to a recording of the call reviewed by The New York Times: How to keep from angering the network’s conservative audience again by calling an election for a Democrat before the competition.
Again, it is not hard to imagine the likes of Carlson, Ingraham, and Sean Hannity saying whatever they could to keep their audience engaged. What is striking about Baker’s story is that this is also how Fox News’ ostensible “straight news“ reporters felt as well:
Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum, the two main anchors, suggested it was not enough to call a state based on numerical calculations, the standard by which networks have made such determinations for generations, but that viewer reaction should be considered. “In a Trump environment,” Ms. MacCallum said, “the game is just very, very different.”….
“We are still getting bombarded,” Mr. Baier said. “It became really hurtful.” He said projections were not enough to call a state when it would be so sensitive. “I know the statistics and the numbers, but there has to be, like, this other layer” so they could “think beyond, about the implications.”
Ms. MacCallum agreed: “There’s just obviously been a tremendous amount of backlash, which is, I think, more than any of us anticipated. And so there’s that layer between statistics and news judgment about timing that I think is a factor.” For “a loud faction of our viewership,” she said, the call was a blow.
Neither she nor Mr. Baier explained exactly what they meant by another “layer.”
Conservatives have been awfully fond of saying “facts don’t care about your feelings” as of late — but in this case Baier and MacCallum seem to prioritize the latter.
This is not the first time Fox News has done this — in 2012, Karl Rove refused to believe that Obama had won Ohio and Megyn Kelly asked him if he was just doing “Math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better.” As Jon Stewart noted at the time, that turns out to be a much better slogan for Fox than “Fair and Balanced.”
The difference is that in 2012, Karl Rove’s on-air temper tantrum was quickly dismissed and Fox made its call. Eight years later, far more folks at Fox were invested in behaving like Karl Rove did that night. The staff in 2020 who stood by their election reporting were summarily dismissed at the end of the year. For Fox now, truth is just an inconvenient reality that, on occasion, is grudgingly acknowledged. It’s all about appeasing viewers.
Real media outlets screw up too — the difference is that they usually try to self-correct. If one thinks the mainstream media tilts to the left, then there need to be good, rigorous right-leaning outlets to report on inconvenient truths. Unfortunately, what the Dominion lawsuit and New York Times reporting reveals is that Fox News is not a real media outlet. Worse, it turns out that in a polarized political environment (which Fox helped midwife into existence) its financial incentive is to ignore large swathes of reality. I don’t know how one can trust a single thing they report ever again.