Editors Note: As Dominion Voting Systems announces its settlement with Fox News agreeing to pay $787.5 million, Alison Dagnes, Professor of Political Science at Shippensburg University, brings this contributing article on Right Wing Media. Learn more about Alison here.
We live in an age of alternative facts and dishonest brokers who “just ask questions” that are (at best) duplicitous. There is monster distrust all around. Into this setting comes Dominion v. Fox News, the lawsuit filed by the voting machine company against the most profitable cable news company on the planet alleging the TV channel spread bald face, destructive lies. The bad news for Fox is that the legal maneuverings have produced more receipts than a CVS self-checkout.
The lawsuit filings and discovery have shed some light on the Fox News juggernaut, the 900-pound gorilla in conservative media. It also has exposed many of the ancillary satellite media outposts that claim to be an antidote to liberal media, rather than journalistic endeavors. Seeing their job not as “real news” providers but as a cudgel against the mainstream press, Fox and friends played fast and loose with the facts to keep an audience who had been lured into believing a scheme that was repeatedly proven in court to be false.
Shocked. I’m shocked.
Look, this has been in development for decades. Fox News made its bones by scattering grievance politics and government distrust among the weeds of negative partisanship and conspiracy theories it had rooted. The approach has been so good for business that Fox News continues to toe the line of partisan lunacy even when faced with rock-solid evidence that disproves it. One email sent by the Fox executive in charge of prime-time programming warned that the network should fan the flames of conspiracies: “Do not ever give viewers a reason to turn us off. Every guest and topic must perform.” Doing otherwise would lose their audience. As Adam Serwer wrote in The Atlantic: “The network inflames right-wing conspiracism, but it also bows to it out of partisan commitment and commercial incentive.”
The claim of liberal media bias began softly in the mid-Twentieth Century and has grown in volume and pitch ever since, which is how a dedicated audience segment primed for conservative content was built and preserved. The technological advancements merely caught up with the purpose of providing an “antidote” to the so-called liberal press. This mostly took the form of conservative commentary, beginning with the wild west of talk radio in the 1980s. The post “Fairness Doctrine” media landscape let big mouthed talking heads use partisanship as entertainment, and the public began to see politics as entertaining. Audiences flocked to Rush Limbaugh, and then to cable news since Rush was the not-so-secret inspiration for Rupert Murdoch’s creation of Fox, which launched in 1996. The whole point of conservative media was to challenge the libs while bucking the professional, impartial norms of journalism. They hoovered up profits and spawned imitators.
After cable news took over the airwaves and Al Gore invented the internet, right-wing media content exploded in scope and scale. With so many options, many Americans just wanted the news that went down as easy as a Slurpee on a hot day, which meant that politically interested people flocked to the partisan networks and websites that supported their views. This is how the right-wing media circle we have today developed, and it is profitable. With Fox News in the center, this right-wing media circle features websites, radio shows, podcasts, and streaming services that all make the same fundamental argument: the left is an insane clown posse of socialists and identity politics obsessed radicals. This line of reasoning works: Fox News has been the #1 cable news channel for 20 uninterrupted years, and of the top websites in the U.S., Fox News.com comes in at #27, beating The New York Times.
All of this is to say that Fox News is extremely popular. The narratives set by Fox then bounce around the outlets within the right-wing media circle, and fairly quickly these stories are set in stone. Which gets us back to the Dominion lawsuit.
On Election Night in 2020, Fox News was the first to call Biden as the winner. It was an early call, and it turned out to be a correct call, but it was a call that made former President Trump Deathcon 3 furious (but without the overt anti-Semitism). Numerous accounts report that Trump and his staff called Fox News and begged them to retract the call, but to no avail. This is where Trump’s “Frankly, we did win this election” line came to pass. It was in response to the Fox News Decision Desk call.
Legal depositions revealed the following:
- Fox News viewers began to abandon the network for more conspiracy-laden fare found on Newsmax and OANN.
- The well-paid Fox staff howled in protest and insisted that they further the election conspiracy they apparently knew was a lie.
Since Donald Trump had planted the seeds of mistrust well before Election Day 2020, there were unsubstantiated stories about election fraud circulating on the right. Many of these rumors had been reinforced on Fox News, but the conspiracy theory about Dominion was a real corker. Pundits fortified the falsity that the Dominion Voting Machine company was in cahoots with the Democrats to change votes from Trump to Biden. Allegations against Dominion included connections to the (late) Hugo Chavez, treacherous behavior traced to foreign interference, and all-around nefarious action on the part of a once-unknown voting machine company.
After so many Fox News segments, Dominion was no longer unknown, and they had enough: the company sent formal notices (more than 3,600 requests to Fox News) asking Fox to stop name checking their company in their wild (and unsubstantiated) story telling. Spoiler alert: Fox did not stop spreading the fabrications even though their most popular (and highest paid) pundits knew they were, in legal terms, totally banana-pants. To win back their audience that couldn’t handle the truth, Fox News continued to amplify the stolen election invention in earnest, with appearances on the network by Trump surrogates, in order to regain their audience.
- Testimony from Rupert Murdoch and emails from Fox employees all show that nobody at the network believed these fabrications but they aired them anyway.
- They did this to save their stock price and because money mattered most. As Murdoch himself stated, it was not a matter of ideology. It was: “not red or blue. It is green.”
The bottom line of this legal dump is that the financial imperatives of Fox News rest on spreading misinformation, even though the power structure knew it was incorrect. In other words, Fox knew what their audience wanted, and they took a hard U turn after they behaved like a real news organization and their audience bolted. They fired the real news people who had properly called the election, threw shade at the journalists from their network, and they shuffled their schedule to lose the news and add more opinion. It worked. Fox won their audience back.
Immediately following the election, according to the Brookings Institute: “Unsubstantiated and false claims tied to the 2020 US presidential election spiked dramatically after the election and did not abate in the following months, despite multiple failed legal challenges.” This was the result of harmonization between right-wing outlets. Fox News might be the undisputed center of the right-wing media universe, but there needs to be message corroboration in order for an argument to congeal, and this is where the podcasts, websites, and streaming services stayed on message to perpetuate the “Big Lie” about election fraud.
That’s how ideas have become fact: that January 6 was really an heroic effort by patriots to tour the U.S. Capitol, that there’s a conspiracy afoot to replace white American voters with people of color, and that former President Donald Trump is the victim of political persecution. These narratives spread around the right-wing media circle, from guest to host to commentary, and they are consistently echoed since so many of the right-wing personalities do double and triple duty on the air, on podcasts or talk radio programs, and on the web. The misinformation and storylines spread with alarming alacrity because there is so much airtime to fill. And much like cement, these opinions solidify over time having been buttressed by numerous personalities on many different outlets.
Studies and polling data show little overlap between the right-wing media and the mainstream press, mostly because of the deep distrust mentioned at the top. This means that consumers of right-wing media are locked in a bubble of confirmation bias that is corroborated everywhere they go for political content, as long as they stay within their bubble. It’s not fair to blame these Americans for believing the fake news and misinformation they get, because it’s everywhere they go. I play my own version of “Name That tune” where I can identify someone’s media diet from one phrase. The moment I hear “Biden Crime Family,” I know what I’m dealing with.
The real villains are not our friends and neighbors who buy into the fire hoses of dishonesty. As one cable executive said to a reporter off the record, the Dominion lawsuit will not do much to dissuade the Fox News audience: “Fox may be forced to read an apology on air or something, but the audience still loves the product. It’s basically the W.W.E. for this kind of world.” You can’t blame the public for wanting entertainment, even from their politicians. The real offenders are the media figures who peddle the dreck.
In the days after the 2020 election, former President Trump Tweeted to his millions of followers: “@FoxNews daytime ratings have completely collapsed. Very sad to watch this happen, but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose.” Quickly thereafter, Fox remembered their Goose, and their ratings rose once again, proving that they will be okay as long as Fox News supports Trump. But this is the problem: If Fox champions Trump, their audience will stay loyal and hear even more confirmation biased content that further distorts the truth.
It is already evident that Trump’s 3rd presidential campaign is built upon resentment and retribution, both of which fit into Fox News’ lib trolling mission. Vengeance programming will spread from Fox News throughout conservative media outlets because it sells, and in selling the anger, the revenge narrative will be strengthened and solidified. We will learn a great deal from the Dominion lawsuit, and it will all point to the irrefutable fact that Fox News manipulates the truth to satisfy its audience. In the end, these revelations might not matter too much because ratings will probably remain solid. In the right-wing media circle, it’s not who you support but who you oppose that counts.