Opinions | What Fox News did to Dominion was not journalism; more like a mugging

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“Fox News” is a misnomer. Rupert Murdoch’s cable network isn’t really a news organization. It just plays one on television — and deserves to lose the $1.6 billion Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit that will soon go to trial.

I generally root for the defendant in libel and defamation suits. Journalism is a human endeavor, which means that however hard we try to get everything right, sometimes we fail. The Supreme Court has rightly set a high bar for plaintiffs who claim they were wronged by the media, recognizing that the First Amendment’s protection of press freedom must allow for tough reporting, sharp commentary and honest mistakes.

This case, for me, is a glaring exception. What Fox did to Dominion was not journalism. It was more like a mugging.

After the 2020 election, Fox repeatedly aired wild, unsubstantiated and patently false allegations about Dominion’s voting machines having “stolen” votes — and, by extension, the presidency — from incumbent Donald Trump.

Erik Wemple: Fox News is worse than you thought

In a ruling on Friday sending the case to trial, Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis wrote that the evidence produced so far makes it “CRYSTAL clear that none of the Statements relating to the Dominion about the 2020 election are true.”

The lies pushed by Fox’s hosts and guests included claims that Dominion was created in Venezuela to rig elections for dictator Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013, and that the company’s machines used some kind of algorithm to change Trump ballots into votes for Joe Biden. These and other false statements, Davis ruled, were presented by Fox as fact rather than opinion and — to state the obvious — were harmful to the Dominion’s reputation.

What is most stunning about the voluminous evidence presented thus far by Dominion is how differently Fox operates from any news organization I’ve encountered in all my years as a journalist. (I should mention that I am a regular commentator on MSNBC, which competes with Fox.)

Jennifer Rubin: Fox News has been blown to smithereens

Text messages, emails and other internal Fox communications show that in the weeks after Election Day, as Trump and his advocates pushed the “stolen election” lie, the network’s most senior executives — including Murdoch himself — and its most popular hosts were less concerned about reporting the truth than about having Fox’s huge, lucrative, Trump-supporting audience stolen away by even more MAGA-friendly outlets, such as Newsmax and One America News (OAN), with even fewer journalistic scruples.

Dominion court filings revealed a Nov. 12, 2020, text chain among prime-time hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. In it, Carlson complained about a tweet from a Fox reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, in which she said there was no evidence of voter fraud by Dominion.

“Please get her fired,” wrote Carlson, whose show is among the network’s highest-rated. “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”

What key players at Fox News said about the network and its viewers

At legitimate news organizations, senior figures do not seek to have staff members fired for telling the truth. At Fox, however, this appears to be business as usual. During the 2020 vote count, Fox was the first network to call Arizona for Biden — which all but extinguished any chance for Trump to win an electoral majority and sent him into a rage. Real news organizations take pride in being first — and right — on an election call. Fox, by contrast, ended up firing the politics editor who oversaw the Arizona call, ostensibly as part of a bureaucratic reorganization.

Meanwhile, Fox hosts and executives were privately dismissive and even contemptuous of the Trump mouthpieces, including attorneys Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, who were making false claims about Dominion. “Sidney Powell is lying by the way. I caught her. It’s insane,” Carlson wrote to Ingraham on Nov. 18, 2020. Ingraham revised: “Sidney is a complete nut. No one will work with her. Ditto with Rudy.”

Yet Fox kept putting Giuliani and Powell on the water.

Greg Sargent: Fox News texts point up the right’s long war on the truth

In another set of internal Fox communications revealed by the Dominion suit, the network’s chief executive, Suzanne Scott, complained in early December 2020 about an anchor who had fact-checked some of Trump’s false “stolen election” claims. “This has to stop now,” Scott wrote. “This is bad business and there is clearly a lack of understanding [of] what is happening in these shows. The audience is furious and we are just feeding them material. Bad for business.”

I repeat: This is not journalism.

If your practice is to tell people what they want to hear rather than what you know to be true, you are not a journalist. You are an infotainer or a propagandist. Perhaps both.

I don’t believe this case threatens the protections accorded to journalists. My only worry is that some people might get the idea that actual news organizations think and act like Fox. We do not.

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