Long-time News Items subscribers have heard me bang on about Fox News as follows: “the audience programs the network, not the other way around.” Yet more evidence for this assertion arrived recently in filings by the voting-machine company Dominion Voting Systems, which is suing Fox for defamation and seeking $1.6 billion in damages done to the company’s reputation and revenue.
Dominion’s filings, which quote numerous emails and texts between “top Fox News anchors and executives,” make plain that none of the top people at Fox believed (or believe) that the election was “stolen” from President Trump, but indulged the “stop the steal” fantasy because the audience demanded no less. Efforts to placate the audience included providing a platform for various Trump surrogates to make ludicrous allegations regarding Dominion’s role in the 2020 presidential election (apparently Dominion’s machines worked just fine down ballot, where the GOP had a terrific 2020 election night).
As a legal matter, the company argues that Dominion’s filing fails to establish “actual malice” and should therefore be dismissed on First Amendment grounds. As to the companion standard of defamation — “reckless disregard for the truth” — Fox has essentially conceded the fact.
There’s no confusion about what happened. On election night, Fox called Arizona for Biden. A couple of hours later, the Associated Press made the same call. The Trump White House went ballistic at Fox, not the AP. The president asserted that the election was stolen. Fox initially refused to agree and, on the weekend after Election Day, called the race for Biden (after all the other networks had done so).
Fox’s audience was angry that Fox was not on board with Trump’s “narrative.” It wanted confirmation, not dismissal. A small percentage of the audience voted with their clickers and emigrated (briefly) to Newsmax and OANN. Facing what it feared might be a collapse of the network’s ratings, Fox scrambled back aboard The Trump Express; firing people few had ever heard of, rejiggering its prime time line-up and showering even the looniest of Trump surrogates with prime time “coverage.”
While doing these things, Fox was not concerned about crossing a red or blue line, as Rupert Murdoch put it in his deposition. It was concerned about the green line, meaning ad revenue. If the ratings go down, the ad rates go down with them. If the ratings are steady or tick up, everything is fine. The ratings were arrowing down. If it took trashing Dominion to get them back up, that was and is “news show business.”
And that’s what makes Fox’s defense at least partially persuasive. There was no “actual malice” toward Dominion. Rupert Murdoch was not barking at his subordinates: “attack Dominion in primetime; they fixed the election for Biden.” Lachlan Murdoch wasn’t angry with Dominion. He was upset that his employees were out of synch with the audience.
The depositions make clear that neither Murdoch believed or believe that Dominion “fixed” the election. They just didn’t want the green line crossed. Dominion wasn’t the target, it was collateral damage. If the price to make it all go away is hundreds of millions of dollars, that too is “news show business.” The shows will go on.