Sow the wind, wrote the prophet Hosea, and then reap the whirlwind. I was thinking about those words when I read about some astonishing revelations in an American courtroom this week. There, a company that marketed voting machines is suing one of the largest media companies in the world. The media company is Fox News, Rupert Murdoch’s baleful, partisan and dishonest news channel.
The voting machine company is called Dominion Voting Systems. In 2020, it supplied electronic voting machines to various jurisdictions in about two dozen US states. After Donald Trump lost that November, he and a lot of his nutty myrmidons set about trying to overthrow the election. Caught in the crossfire was this little-known company, which, to hear a lot of crazies talk about it, was a brainchild of the late Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez – and it allowed nefarious anti-Trump forces secretly to alter voting totals.
Fox News prime-time host Tucker Carlson with former president Donald Trump last year.Credit:New York Times
There was no evidence of any of this, but Fox News became a welcoming home for the espousal of it all. Dominion sued Fox and a lot of other people for destroying the company’s reputation.
Libel cases of this type in the US turn, in crude terms, on the basic issue of good-faith reporting. The courts recognise that news organisations can make unintentional mistakes, and they would be severely hampered, and cowed, if they were punished for each one. It’s really hard to win a libel or defamation case against a media outlet in the US.
However, if they print things they know aren’t true, or go out of their way not to find out if they are true or not – the legal term is “with reckless disregard” – that can make them liable for punishment.
This week, Dominion filed a motion that includes many documents from a process known as discovery, in which the company’s lawyers got to sift through a lot of texts and emails from inside Fox. As we say in America, Hoo boy!
According to the motion, the texts show that Fox personalities and producers were saying one thing in public and another behind the scenes. We repeatedly see, for instance, that Fox’s supposed news folks not only didn’t bother to attempt to check whether Dominion was the brainchild of a dead dictator in a third-world country before letting various Trumpeters say so on air, but that they actually knew it was all nonsense and said so among themselves. The claims were “crazy”, “insane”, said staffers, including the network’s stars. Their guests were “lying”, they acknowledged. And yet they kept putting them on air.
For its part, Fox contends that it was just reporting the news. But even that has been undermined by a deposition from Rupert Murdoch himself, in which the 91-year-old executive concedes that his anchors were endorsing the defamatory claims – a horrific admission, legally speaking. (And now Trump has turned his fire on Murdoch, saying the executive has thrown his stars “under the table”.)
The evidence is damning. One of the smarter legal analysts in Washington these days is Quinta Jurecic, who writes for the Lawfare website. On a podcast discussing the just-released Fox documents, she said: “It’s confirmation of everything we’ve suspected about Fox.” And that’s certainly true.
The trouble is, it’s actually much worse. In the released texts, we see that a key motivating factor for Fox was that, when the channel did start reporting the news – telling its audience that Trump lost, and that there had been no fraud – viewers changed the channel.
As revealed in the hearings and motions filed to date, Fox personalities such as Tucker Carlson can be seen fretting about the stock price going down. He and other stars targeted fellow staffers who did present the truth. When a Fox reporter posted a Tweet fact-checking – and dismissing – the claims against Dominion, Carlson texted another Fox host, Sean Hannity, “Please get her fired.” The offending tweet disappeared.
Part of the company’s motivation, in other words, was to present falsehoods for money. It kept casting doubts on the election – and in the process destroyed a company’s reputation – in a pitiful bid to keep viewers engaged.
Enter the whirlwind that Fox reaped. It’s kind of delicious to see Fox confounded, finally, not by decency or ethics – which, under the First Amendment in America, are not required qualities in a news organisation – but rather the mule-headed obstinance of its audience. Fox has been radicalising these folks for decades with lies and racist and hateful conspiracy theories. When the company pulled up short, the audience began leaving. So, Fox turned up the volume to get them back.
Now, for the record, why Fox told the lies it did isn’t really relevant, legally speaking. (All media organisations are concerned about their audience.) But it does lead us to a final twist of a footnote.
Let’s look at the last time a jury had a chance to take a whack at one of these mouthpieces on the right. Ethical canker sore Alex Jones, the radio host who made millions spewing hate against the families of the children killed in the Sandy Hook school massacre, has already been assessed by appalled juries with almost $1.5 billion in fines, with more to come.
In the Dominion case, it is claimed that Fox sowed much more defamatory material, and at much higher volume – and caused much worse appreciable and probably irreparable financial harm to Dominion in the process. Legal cases are complex and sometimes turn on ancillary issues. Anything can happen. But I have a feeling that, if the case isn’t settled beforehand, a jury isn’t going to forget the image of Fox News hosts keeping an eye on the stock price as they promulgated lies on air.
When the Dominion trial is done and the jury renders a verdict, if it is a finding that Fox is liable in defamation, don’t be surprised if there are a lot of zeros on the end of the damages award.
The Opinion newsletter is a weekly wrap of views that will challenge, champion and inform your own. Sign up here.
Most Viewed in World
From our partners
Source: Read Full Article