Wherever I give a talk, someone always asks a variation of this question.
“How can we tell if a news source is reliable?”
My answer is always the same.
Watch how the newspaper, broadcast, or website handles its mistakes. If it acknowledges errors and tries to correct them, it’s saying it cares about the truth and is doing its best to report it.
The so-called news operations that never issue corrections, even when it’s abundantly clear its reporting isn’t accurate, are the ones not to be trusted.
Because they don’t care whether something is true or not.
I thought about those exchanges when word came that Fox News had settled the defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion for a whopping $787.5 million. That was just a little bit less than half of the $1.6 billion Dominion sought. It is one of the largest settlements in history.
The suit sprang from Fox’s ongoing and untruthful coverage of the 2020 presidential election. Fox and its on-air personalities allowed supporters of former President Donald Trump to assert—without evidence—that Dominion, which makes voting machines, had altered the vote totals. Sometimes, the on-air “talent” supported the deceptive assertions when they were on camera while acknowledging the claims were false in private.
Fox never corrected the record.
In fact, the cable “news” network never acknowledged the falsehoods of its coverage until the settlement was announced—and then only grudgingly and half-heartedly.
This rankled some observers, many of whom had urged Dominion not to settle. In the aftermath of the settlement, many of those same voices said they were disappointed that Fox wasn’t being required to do a mea culpa on the air.
While forcing Fox and its talking heads to make public apologies might have made for riveting television, it really wasn’t necessary.
In this case, the money spoke—and it spoke louder than any spurious apology might have.
Fox ponied up nearly $800 million in damages because it literally could not afford to have the suit proceed.
If it had gone forward, the Fox squad of rightwing blowhards—Lou Dobbs, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro—would have been forced, under oath and penalty of perjury, to acknowledge that they reported, day after day after day, things they knew not to be true. They would have been forced to tell the truth about their network’s lies.
The damage would have been incalculable.
Fox already struggles to find credible advertisers despite its solid ratings. If a long-lasting trial had revolved around the theme that companies should advertise on Fox because “lying to our audience is our business model,” that challenge would have grown significantly.
It’s difficult to run a multibillion-dollar network with advertising support coming only from My Pillow and its ilk.
It could get worse.
Fox faces a similar suit from another voting machine company, Smartmatic, for $2.7 billion. Smartmatic is a smaller company than Dominion, but the claims are similar.
Now that there’s blood in the water, Smartmatic likely will demand a huge sum to settle. If Fox doesn’t settle, there will be another steady flow of stories about the penchant of the network and its stars to spew falsehoods almost as often as they take breaths.
That won’t lure advertisers back.
But there may be other problems for Fox.
Because it is clear the network is comfortable with lying, it puts people who appear on Fox shows in an uncomfortable position. They will signal they are comfortable with lying, too.
Many Republican politicians—including U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, R-Indiana, and Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita—covet time on Fox shows because they know they will receive unquestioning, even fawning coverage.
That coverage now may help them with the shrinking Trump base, which is likely to discount the reality of the settlement if its members are even aware of it, but the Fox stamp of approval will be costly in the once staunchly Republican suburbs.
All this spells continuing trouble for Fox.
Even if it finds advertisers and enough guests to right itself, the network—or its lawyers—must realize that future objects of Fox coverage will be watching closely for prevarications on air.
Those who are maligned by the network won’t hesitate to sue because Fox has demonstrated that, under pressure, it will cave.
Not caring about the truth caught up with Fox.
As it usually does.
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].