Imagine a world where the news bends to your will. One where, if you lobbied hard enough, or threatened to change the channel, the facts of an event would be softened and changed to your liking. Your efforts would have no impact on reality, but instead provide fleeting happiness in exchange for long-term ignorance.
New revelations about the inner workings of Fox News appear to show that the network has provided just that service to its millions of viewers.
The revelations come in the form of pages of private text messages between the network’s biggest stars during the 2020 election, released in the discovery phase of a lawsuit filed against the network by a company that makes voting machines.
Simply put, they show the network’s top names privately ridiculing the claims of Donald Trump and his supporters that the election was stolen from him, while promoting and lending credence to those claims on air.
The lawsuit, filed by Dominion Voting Systems, aims to prove that Fox News defamed the company and acted with malice when it repeatedly aired claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump while executives and hosts privately admitted it had not.
The network does not deny broadcasting the allegations, but claims it did so in pursuit of investigative journalism.
In discovery, Dominion found that the network’s top stars — Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity — scoffed at those claims in private group chats, but also condemned colleagues who questioned them publicly.
In a revealing exchange, Mr Carlson – a self-proclaimed anti-Chancellor culture warrior – called for a colleague to be fired after she correctly fact-checked Trump’s false claims about election theft.
His reason? It hurt the company’s share price.
“Please get her fired,” Carlson said in a group text with Ingraham and Hannity on Nov. 12, 2020, pointing to a tweet from Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich that challenged Trump’s claims.
“It must stop immediately, like tonight. It damages the company measurably. The share price is down. Not a joke, Carlson continued.
In separate messages, Carlson called the allegations of election fraud and the people promoting them “ridiculous” and “completely off the rails.” Sean Hannity called them “F’ing lunatics.”
Rupert Murdoch, Fox Corp’s chairman, called the allegations of voter fraud “really crazy stuff”. And later, referring to Hannity expressing private concerns about Trump spreading false election-fraud claims, Murdoch wrote to a FOX executive: “It was all very well for Sean to tell you that he was upset with Trump, but what did he tell his viewers? “
The discovery too including many messages from executives who expressed concern that their factual reporting of the election was alienating viewers.
In short, knowing that these claims were “really crazy stuff”, Fox News continued to broadcast them and give them credibility so as not to alienate or lose their audience.
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In its response to the allegations, Fox has framed the lawsuit as an attack on the First Amendment.
“When a sitting president of the United States and his legal team challenge a presidential election in lawsuits across the nation, the media can truthfully report and comment on those allegations under the First Amendment without fear of liability,” the company’s lawyers said in a archiving.
It said the Fox hosts “did not press charges against Dominion, which predated the November 2020 election,” and claimed they “truthfully reported the newsworthy allegations made by President Trump and his legal team.”
The revelations, of which there are likely to be many more, pull back the curtain on backroom decision-making at Fox News in a way we have never seen before. Even the most conspiratorial minds would have struggled to come up with something so brazen.
If a government had engaged in such a blatant disinformation campaign, we might call it a PSYOP (psychological operation) – a deliberate attempt to influence the opinions, feelings and attitudes of a particular group with propaganda.
But how do we begin to describe a news organization that deliberately promotes conspiracy theories and fake news to keep its audience happy? What does that tell you about what Fox thinks about its viewers?
Perhaps the most generous description of the state of Fox News is that it suffers from a condition called “audience crowding,” a relatively new term used to describe a process by which influencers adapt their personality and output based on what their audience demands.
Gurwinder Bhogal, in an article about its dangersdescribes it as a “self-reinforcing feedback loop that involves telling your audience what they want to hear and being rewarded for it.”
Bhogal describes it as “a gradual and unconscious replacement of a person’s identity with one tailored to the public,” one that occurs “after they realize that their more outlandish behavior gets the most attention and approval, causing them to recalibrate their personalities theirs. according to far more extreme social cues than those they would receive in real life.”
Essentially, the influencer is trapped by their audience, unable to adapt. The caricature takes over. The truth is a sideshow.
A less generous reading of the whole episode is that Fox was committing some sort of fraud on viewers by masking the opinions of the opinion makers. But that is up to the trial to decide.
Either way, this episode should settle the debate once and for all: the daily outrage of Mr Carlson and Mr Hannity and their ilk – from entertaining the idea that the election was stolen, to chastising M&Ms for being too sexy — is performative.
Mr. Carlson may work himself into a raging rage every night as he dispenses his wisdom and beliefs, and he may claim to hold them tight and resolute, but now we know they’re only as strong as Fox Corp. stock.