By Nolan Higdon
“This is direct evidence of knowing falsity” exclaimed RonNell Anderson Jones, Professor of Law at the University of Utah, in a February 2023 interview with Jon Stewart. Jones noted that in most defamation cases “the likelihood that you will find evidence of them [news outlets] saying, ‘We know this is a lie and we would like to move forward with it anyway is deeply unlikely.’” However, in the case of Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox News, “the filing contains just this trove of evidence of emails and text messages and internal memos that are ‘rare’ both in terms of the ‘volume of the evidence and as to the directness of the evidence.’” This sentiment was echoed by Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe who noted, “I have never seen a defamation case with such overwhelming proof that the defendant admitted in writing that it was making up fake information in order to increase its viewership and its revenues.”
In the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit, Dominion Voting Systems accuses Fox News Channel of falsely reporting that Dominion’s voting machines fraudulently delivered victory to Joe Biden in the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election. Court documents attained by other media outlets reveal that hosts and other high-ranking Fox News Channel officials – including the Chairman and CEO of Fox’s parent company News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch – knew these reports were false, but aired them because they were more concerned with confirming their audience’s belief that Donald Trump won the election.
The evidence presented in the court documents speaks to the journalistic malpractice that plagues the cable news industry. Journalistic malpractice refers to professional journalists who privilege ideological bias and profits over truth in their reporting. Fox News Channel is patient zero for the plague of journalistic malpractice. It was created in 1996 by Rupert Murdoch and the late Roger Ailes, a media consultant for several Republican presidents, as a political project to sell conservative culture and policy to the American public with pro-conservative propaganda disguised as journalism. For example, Fox News Channel has
- falsely claimed that other media outlets did not cover the conservative Tea Party rallies;
- utilized videos out of context to inflate the perceived size of conservative protests;
- labeled former President Barack Obama a racist;
- declared Osama bin Laden as a John Kerry supporter;
- perpetuated discredited reports on the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq;
- introduced digitally altered photos to fabricate Black Lives Matter violence and make New York Times reporters appear to be revolting.
Liberals were right to assert that such chicanery was propaganda, not journalism. But before liberal readers scold Fox News viewers, they should remind themselves that the plague of journalistic malpractice has also infected the liberal leaning cable networks such as CNN and MSNBC. Researchers and scholars have noted that the advent of cable and then the internet saw news media outlets shift from attaining the largest audience possible to focusing on a more specific or narrow demographic of the audience. While Fox News Channel sought to cater to Republican Party voting viewers, CNN and MSNBC did the same for Democratic Party voters. This gave the Democratic Party influence over programming that was tantamount to what the Republican Party long enjoyed at Fox.
When Senator U.S. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 Presidential bid posed a threat to their desired candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, leaders from the Democratic Party admitted they worked to undermine his campaign. Pro-Democratic party outlets like MSNBC and CNN aided in this effort by
- creating an unfavorable debate schedule;
- giving Clinton twice as much and more favorable coverage;
- publishing 16 negative articles about Sanders in Washington Post (owned by major Democratic Party funder Jeff Bezos) in 16 hours;
- ghost editing previous news articles to diminish Sanders’ quarter century of accomplishments;
- inviting his opponent’s surrogates to attack his character under the auspices of being objective journalists.
Their smear of Sanders continued in 2020 when
- the Democratic Party-leaning news outlets misled the public about Sanders’ polling numbers;
- CNN’s Abby Phillips drew gasps for ignoring Sanders’ claim that he never said a “woman could not be president;”
- James Carville on MSNBC made the baseless claim that Russia was supporting Sanders;
- MSNBC’s Chris Matthews compared Sander’s primary victories to the Nazi’s defeat of the French, an unfortunate comparison as Sanders’ family was murdered in the holocaust.
Journalistic malpractice also plagued Covid-19 coverage. Starting in 2020, CNN’s Chris Cuomo utilized his platform – with the approval of CNN leadership – to host his brother, then New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. The jovial segments seemed like campaign advertisements as Chris treated Andrew as the anti-thesis to then President Trump: a competent executive who took decisive action to address the Covid-19 pandemic. Although, the Democratic versus Republican framing attracted partisan audiences, in reality, Andrew Cuomo and Trump were all too similar: both concealed the actual number of Covid-19 deaths in their jurisdiction, both put patients at risk with kickbacks to industry partners, and both utilized media contacts to stifle press reports about their alleged sexual crimes.
The partisan falsehoods in cable news includes the production of powerful, long- running false stories designed to convince their audiences that the other party is wrong and crazy. For years now, conservatives and Fox News Channel perpetuated the baseless Qanon conspiracy, which alleges that a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles – mainly in the Democratic Party – runs global affairs but Trump will break up the conspiracy. The absurdity of this conspiracy is tantamount to liberal leaning news media’s reporting on Russiagate, which sought to discredit Republicans. Since 2016, Russiagate – the story that Russia meddled in and influenced the outcome of the U.S. election in 2016, had direct connections to Donald Trump and his associates, and worked to help defeat Hillary Clinton for the presidency – was perpetuated by a series of false stories from Democratic Party-friendly media including
- Russia hacking a Vermont power plant;
- putting a bounty on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan;
- shifting election outcomes around the world;
- turning Trump into an asset since 1987;
- labeling the Hunter Biden laptop story as fake news.
Conservatives rightly see this reporting and believe liberals are insane.
Both factions need to look in a mirror. While audiences can clearly see the insanity in other networks’ viewers, they rarely seem to see it in themselves. Indeed, in the same week that CNN and others were having a schadenfreude moment over the Dominion v. Fox case, they hosted a commentator on the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio without disclosing that he had lobbied for the train company Norfolk Southern. This example of hypocrisy and journalistic malpractice is not only costly to CNN’s credibility, but our democracy as well.
Without a robust media system that privileges truth over preaching to the choir, the public will have endless debates devoid of facts on key issues such as critical race theory, vaccine efficacy, the origins of the COVID-19 virus, climate change, transgender issues, Ukraine, mysterious balloons, and more. Democratic discourse will be reduced to seeing Republicans as MAGA-hat wearing, blue lives matter-flag waving, gun nuts, and Democrats as medical mask wearing, “this house cares about everything” front-lawn sign adorning, professional victims and virtue signalers. These caricatures have never really been accurate, but as long as the nation is infected with the plague of journalist malpractice they will surely be perpetuated.
While the courts are unlikely to deliver solace from political party propaganda disguised as journalism, they have provided some wisdom. Both Rachel Maddow and Tucker Carlson of MSNBC and Fox News Channel respectively, have been brought to court for spreading false information and were exonerated because the judges concluded that no reasonable person would believe either of them were telling the truth. That is good advice, and viewers would be wise to remember it every time they consider watching cable news.