The $1.6 billion defamation suit, filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News, has produced a document dump of revelations into unethical conduct not seen since the obscene Nixon White House tapes revealed the office talk of our 37th president. The underbelly of Fox News has been put on public display.
The high/low point came Tuesday night. Using footage supplied by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Fox News host Tucker Carlson sought to depict the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrectionists as peaceful tourists, escorted through hallowed corridors by Capitol police. Kudos from Donald Trump: “Congratulations to Tucker Carlson on one of the biggest ‘scoops’ as a reporter in U.S. history.”
On the same day, Dominion dropped its latest depositions, revealing what Carlson really thought of our 45th president. “I hate him passionately,” Tucker said in an email two days before the January 6 insurrection, adding that “we are very very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights. I truly can’t wait”
The network had lionized Trump for four years, but of his presidency Carlson said: “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it, because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too hard to digest. But come on, there really isn’t an upside to Trump.”
In the private sector, Carlson said of Trump, Trump was a failure. “What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that,” and Carlson added: “He’s a demonic force, a destroyer. But he’s not going to destroy us. I’ve been thinking about this every day for four years.”
The words came from one who had gushed that Trump was “the greatest president that ever will be” in conversation with fellow Fox host Greg Gutfeld, and later a “genuinely great president.” Carlson was a particular cheerleader for the nativist, anti-immigrant policies of Trump’s administration.
The “upside” to Trump, of course, was that Fox News reaped access, ratings, and income during The Donald’s four years in office. Trump true believers sought sustenance from the network. Sean Hannity was transformed from a public bore into a pundit with regular access and an adviser to the president. Carlson carried on the president’s culture wars for white people.
In the wake of the 2020 election, however, Carlson and other Fox hosts saw the destroyer side of Trump. Fox, the network of propagandists, had managed to field an honest vote tabulation effort that scooped the competition. Late on election night, Fox predicted that Joe Biden would carry Arizona, the first Democratic presidential candidate to do so since Bill Clinton in 1996.
Trump was infuriated, seeking to contact network owner Rupert Murdoch. Fox viewers began to decamp to news organizations further on the right. Trump cried fraud and fielded a bizarre team of advocates, who managed to lose more than 60 cases in court and were rebuffed by Trump-appointed judges. Americans were given the unforgettable image of hair dye running down Rudy Giuliani’s cheeks.
With ratings imperiled, Fox brass found a new target, the honest journalists who accurately mapped Biden’s path to victory. Writing to former New York Post editor Col Allen, Rupert Murdoch railed: “I hate our Decision Desk people! And pollsters! Some of the same people, I think. Just for the hell of it still praying for Az to prove them wrong.”
Hannity and Steve Doocy derided the “straight news” side of the network. “News’ destroyed us,” said Hannity. “Every day,” Doocy replied, to which Hannity added: “You don’t piss off the base.” The problem on the news side, Hannity argued, was a refusal to pander: “They don’t care. They are JOURNALISTS.”
The result, to hold viewers – Carlson regularly tops three million – was that Fox fanned conspiracy theories, put Trump advocates onto the air, while privately displaying contempt for Trump’s election challenge. One executive, Washington, D.C., managing editor Bill Sammon, did warn privately of consequences. “It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” he wrote to political editor Chris Stirewait, who answered: “It’s a real mess.”
Rupert Murdoch privately mocked Trump-generated conspiracies. The CEO’s deposition makes for devastating reading. “You’ve never believed that Dominion was involved in an effort to delegitimize and destroy votes for Donald Trump, correct?” he was asked. Replied Murdoch, “I’m open to persuasion, but, no, I’ve never seen it.”
Top-rated Fox News hosts began questioning the election. The network’s ratings were restored. Murdoch did not believe a word of it, but took no action to curb the airing of conspiracy theories. He would concede in his deposition, “Maybe Sean [Hannity] and Laura [Ingraham] went too far.”
Privately, Carlson and Ingraham mocked high-profile election-fraud lawyer Sidney Powell, along with Giulianai the most prominent of Trump’s public advocates. “I had to try to make the WH (White House) disavow her, which they obviously should have done long before,” he texted Ingraham. Ingraham, while fanning rumors, replied, “No serious lawyer could believe what they were saying.”
The backstage revelations from Fox have caused a firestorm on mainstream media, and copious coverage on rival networks CNN and MSNBC. The airbrushing by Carlson of the U.S. Capitol insurrection, has brought down condemnation from Republicans in the Senate, although not House Speaker McCarthy.
“It was a mistake, in my view, for Fox News to depict this in a way that’s completely at variance with what our chief law enforcement here at the Capitol thinks,” said Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell. As the Carlson’s claim that 01/06/2021 was “peaceful chaos,” 8en. Thom Tillis, R-North Carolina, said: “I think it’s bullshit.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, was even more blunt, saying he’s “really sad to see Tucker Carlson go off the rails like that,” and “joining a range of shock jocks that are disappointing America and feeding falsehoods. The American people saw what happened on Jan. 6. They’ve seen the people that got injured. You can’t hide the truth by selectively picking a few minutes out of tapes and saying this is what went on. It’s so absurd. It’s nonsense.”
But hiding the truth is exactly what Carlson is up to. Fox News viewers are seeing or hearing almost nothing about backstage conversations, and Carlson’s effort to recast the insurrection is depicted as a truth seeker’s challenge to power. Right wing media have largely cut off coverage of duplicity and dishonesty by top propagandists.
I’m reminded of journalist William L. Shirer’s Berlin Diary account of the leadoff to World War II. As CBS’ man in Berlin, Shirer ducked off to Switzerland for a family vacation in the summer of 1939. He saw the world’s press reporting on Germany’s imminent invasion of Poland. Returning to the Third Reich, however, he found newspaper kiosks filled with Nazi newspapers breathlessly reporting that Poland was about to mount an attack on Germany.
The big lie still works if no competing information is let in. Surprisingly, in America, right-wing media are manipulating true believers in this fashion. Tucker Carlson is plying his viewers with misinformation and taking them for a ride.
The Murdoch media empire has spread misinformation to three continents (Australia, Europe, and North America) while trashing history, culture, and political culture. It is a bottom dweller pursuing the bottom line — with private contempt for the choir to which it is preaching.
How long can it work? Maybe, just maybe, Trump will “destroy” Fox as it tries to play the double game. The network is now trying to slide away from Trump and use culture wars to anoint Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the chosen one. The base may not have it. A blunt threat, at last weekend’s CPAC conference, from former Trump “chief strategist” Steve Bannon: “You’ve deemed Trump’s not going to be president. Well, we’ve deemed you’re not going to have a network.”
(A version of this article appeared in the Northwest Progressive Institute’s “Cascadia Advocate.”)