So, it turns out that the talking heads at Fox News didn’t lie to the American public about the 2020 presidential election for ideological reasons.
They weren’t trying to advance any conservative causes.
Nor did they lie for partisan reasons.
While Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson can and do shill for the Republican Party like low-rent carnival barkers, that wasn’t what drove them to prevaricate nonstop in this instance.
Nor did they fib out of great personal affection or respect for former President Donald Trump, who had been thumped in the polling on election day.
“That’s the last four years,” Carlson said of Trump’s presidency in a text unearthed by litigation. (More on that litigation in a moment.)
“We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There isn’t really an upside to Trump.”
Then, as if he hadn’t already made the point, Carlson said in another text exchange just before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol:
“We are very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait. I hate him passionately.”
Why, then, did Carlson and crew embrace and sell Trump’s lies about election fraud so aggressively?
Well, their motivation for wrongdoing wasn’t an original one.
They did it for money.
Court filings in the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion, the company that makes the voting machines Trump and his allies said had falsified election results make that much clear.
When one Fox reporter reported the truth—that Trump had lost—Carlson’s response was emphatic.
“Please get her fired,” he said. “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight.”
Then he delivered the big reveal: “It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
Carlson’s right about that last part.
This isn’t a joke.
Dominion’s suit—which poses a formidable threat to Fox’s fortunes—has demonstrated just how many complete fabrications Fox was willing to peddle to please its rightwing audience. In order to keep eyeballs glued to screens, Fox and its newscasters were willing not just to pile lie on top of lie on top of lie to please a Trump-besotted audience, but even to consider punishing journalists for reporting the facts.
The money mattered.
The country didn’t.
Nor did the truth.
Fox’s troubles have provoked glee in media and political circles. Less than charitable observers see the cable network’s immolation as a reason to celebrate.
Maybe it is, but more detached observers can discern another fundamental lesson from this sorry episode.
Fox was by far the worst offender when it came to catering to its audience, but it was far from the only one. There is a sense of inevitability to this train wreck.
In theory, aligning news media with the audience they are supposed to serve should be a good thing.
Often, it is. Understanding what matters to one’s audience allows a journalist to report stories and speak truths that connect with that audience’s lives.
The danger to this direct dependence on the audience, though, is that it can corrupt the reporting process. If one’s livelihood is dependent upon pleasing an audience, the temptation will be strong to tell that audience only things it wants to hear.
Whether they are true or not.
That is what happened here.
Fox’s business model relied on gratifying conservative viewers who felt they didn’t have a home anywhere else on the television news landscape. That model proved to be successful and the returns lucrative, but the cost involved not telling that audience anything that might challenge its assumptions or prejudices.
One of journalism’s functions is to prompt people to think again—to prod them to question preconceived notions.
Fox, of course, has failed spectacularly at meeting that responsibility for years, but—even if their failures haven’t been quite as sweeping or pugnacious as Fox’s—so have many other news outlets.
One big reason journalism and journalists have struggled to negotiate the slow-motion crisis of melting down news organizations over the past few decades has been that journalists again and again and again have been forced to choose between telling the truth and pleasing a core audience.
That’s a tough choice.
Always has been.
Always will be.
But then, this is a tough job.
Always has been.
Always will be.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. The views expressed are those of the author only and should not be attributed to Franklin College. Send comments to [email protected]