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The Fox News defamation case might be almost as entertaining as Succession


Everything’s coming up Murdoch! Succession is back, Dominion Voting Systems won’t drop its suit, and our boy Rupert may be open to further [LCD sound system voice] discovery, discovery, discovery

I am personally thrilled about this trial because I am a longtime Murdoch watcher. I love having more details about Rupert et al. blasted into the public sphere. This family, which owns News Corp, lurks over American journalism like Dracula’s brides over Jonathan Harker. This defamation suit is maybe the most serious challenge to their power in America I’ve seen so far.

Winning a defamation case is hard and expensive; usually people settle

The central claim of Dominion’s $1.6 billion suit is that Fox executives and hosts knew that the election fraud story Donald Trump was pushing was fake — and that they pursued it anyway to goose ratings. This fake story arguably smeared Dominion since one of its central claims was that the company’s voting machines and algorithms had switched votes meant for Trump to instead register for Joe Biden.

Winning a defamation case is hard and expensive. Usually people settle. Dominion isn’t settling, and that’s bad news for Fox. It suggests Dominion is more interested in punishment than a payout — because even if the company loses the case, there’s going to be a bunch of embarrassing and very public testimony from Fox executives and hosts.

We know power motivates Rupert Murdoch. More audience means more money. This is the central thing that Succession nails about the Murdoch family: truth doesn’t matter — only power, and you keep score on power through money. 

Now, Fox News’ original grift was claiming to be “fair and balanced.” To make itself look less like the Republican Party’s propaganda department, the outlet chose to paint other outlets as being unfairly biased to the left. This was fairly successful! I think of it every time someone tells me that The New York Times, a paper written by and for middle managers who live in New Jersey, is a left-wing outlet. In comparison to Fox News, sure. In comparison to actual left-wing outlets such as The New Republic or The American Prospect? Please.

In an email to Col “Sink Pisser” Allan of The New York Post, Murdoch himself decried Trump’s election lies as “bullshit and damaging”

Part of what gave the Fox News’ bias accusations some heft is the kayfabe of “objective journalism.” As students of journalism history know, originally, newspapers were explicitly partisan. That changed during a wave of consolidation starting in the 1950s in response to competition from radio and, later, television. To make the consolidation work without offending partisan audiences, the remaining papers had to write in such a way that remained neutral.

Now, people are naturally suspicious of “objective journalism,” and they are absolutely right to be. All journalism is biased because it is always written by humans, and we are, unfortunately, limited creatures. (AI isn’t going to fix this.) Most of the important biases in journalism have less to do with partisan lenses and more to do with recency, novelty, and reportability. But readers aren’t wrong to be suspicious of us.

The “objectivity journalists” can’t let their face crack, though. That gave Murdoch the only thing he needed to run them over. He affirmed what audiences had already noticed — journalists can be biased — and then named the bias that suited him, rather than the ones that mattered. That gave him the ability to build the audience he wanted. As with all media outlets, you can figure out the audience by looking at the advertisements: Fox’s is old, scared, not very mobile, and easily taken advantage of. A very lucrative audience for sure.

The discovery on Dominion so far has underlined this. Fox is not a news network, though it did have a news arm in the past. In an email to Col “Sink Pisser” Allan of The New York Post, Murdoch himself decried Trump’s election lies as “bullshit and damaging.” But Mike Lindell, CEO of a pillow company, went on Tucker Carlson’s show to lie about the election anyway. Dominion’s counsel asked Murdoch about his motives during his deposition, “It is not red or blue, it is green?” Murdoch agreed: it was about the green cash money.

Lindell was, notably, a major advertiser with Fox.

Fox News built a behemoth by telling people what they wanted to hear

And when Paul Ryan, former speaker of the House of Representatives, emailed Murdoch to rebuke him for broadcasting lies that the election had been stolen, Murdoch replied that Sean Hannity “has been privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers.”

Essentially, Fox News built a behemoth by telling people what they wanted to hear. But when what people wanted to hear was a fantasy — a possibly defamatory fantasy! — its hosts were trapped. They could tell the truth and lose viewers or lie and make the audience happy.

We’ve talked before about rich people and their politics. They don’t really believe anything and will say whatever will make them richer. The documents released so far in the Dominion suit back that up. If Rupert Murdoch woke up tomorrow and thought there was a lucrative audience in far-left socialism, I suspect Fox News would tack left so hard its hosts’ heads would spin. After all, he built Fox Broadcasting Company on The Simpsons and Married… with Children — not exactly right-wing fare.

But we’re still only at the start. The trial is scheduled to begin Monday, and I expect Murdoch, along with a bunch of his hosts, will be compelled to testify. I think we are about to see a lot about the inner workings of power and money. We already know from the court documents that Murdoch provided Jared Kushner with “confidential information” about Joe Biden’s campaign strategy and ads — something no real journalistic outlet would ever do. But then, Fox News isn’t about journalism. It’s about drawing the largest possible audience, and it has gone to dangerous lengths to do so.

Fox News has never particularly been my cup of tea. But you can bet I’ll be glued to the coverage of this trial while the witnesses report and the jury decides.


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