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Fox News Practises Some Radical Honesty
If "weak ratings make good journalists do bad things," imagine what they can do to bad journalists.
Why do people say bullshit they know to be bullshit?
It’s a great mystery of our time that we may have just got closer to cracking.
Thanks to the much-maligned Toronto-based election software company Dominion Voting Systems, and their blockbuster defamation suit against the Fox News Network, we’re getting closer to appreciating the sheer shamelessness of the bug-eyed broadcasters over at America’s number one news network.
So this week, on a very special Bug-eyed and Shameless, let’s pull up some of the affidavits, briefs, and depositions from the lawsuit and hear directly from some of the most morally bankrupt hucksters in the biz.
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“Our viewers are good people and they believe it.”
As you may recall, ex-president Donald Trump didn’t superduper believe in the results of the election that he lost.
With results trickling in after election day, plenty of pedestrian election-watchers saw vote totals go up and down for Trump — and big vote dumps landing in Joe Biden’s camp. For folks primed to look for fraud, it was as good proof as any.
But the rest of the country was, obviously, going to demand something a bit more solid to hang their hat on. There was only so long that Trump lawyer Sidney Powell could insist the results were the result of a “glitch” and a shadowy CIA election-rigging program, as she said on Lou Dobbs’ Fox News show, before we laughed her and the rest of the conspiracy lawyers out of the room.
On Twitter, one user came up with a skeleton for this story: They identified a company called Avid Technologies, which “OWNS the Software used to collect & distribute the Election Voting Tallies,” and unearthed the fact that Senator Diane Feinstein and her husband, Richard Blum, had a stake in the company. It didn’t really go anywhere, as Avid Technologies really wasn’t connected to the election in any major way.
That is, until November 6, when some other DIY researchers came up with another culprit. “The election software system in Michigan that switched 6,000 votes from Trump to Biden is called ‘Dominion,’” a user wrote on Telegram. Donald Trump Jr. shared the post 30 minutes later. “VOTER FRAUD CONFIRMED! DOMINIONGATE,” a 4chan thread proclaimed.
A day later, conspiracy site The Gateway Pundit ran with it: “HUGE! Corrupted Software Used in Michigan County that Stole 6,000 Votes from Trump — Is Also Used in ALL SWING STATES — And Uses Chinese Computer Parts In Its Machines.” Others tied in George Soros, the Clintons, and so on. It helped that Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff had once served as a lobbyist for Dominion.
Now, we know that this stuff made it to Fox News in short order. That’s nothing new. But the big question I always had was: How? Does the network have a few uber-online QAnon researchers who pitch these ideas at a story meeting? Is Laura Ingraham posting as DeepStateHunter420_1982? Or was there an organized effort to parrot the most deranged of online election-denial theories?
Thanks to Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox, we know it’s the latter. (All quotes in this newsletter come via Dominon’s lawsuit, unless otherwise noted.)
On November 7, Fox Business News President Lauren Petterson and others within Fox received an alert that the website 4chan was “call[ing] on users to spread” conspiracy theories about Dominion’s supposed involvement in the fraud.
At first, that alert seemed to be a warning, not inspiration.
That same day, Fox executives cancelled Jeanine Pirro’s show. “Her guests are all going to say the election is being stolen and if she pushes back at all it will just be token,” one exec told the other. Tucker Carlson’s senior producer wrote: “They took her off cuz she was being crazy. Optics are bad. But she is crazy.”
The crazy was spreading. Online, users were working diligently to find motive for Dominion’s supposed fraud, connecting the company with the Democratic Party.
Even if they had tried to quarantine the crazy, it was that Sunday afternoon that Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo brought on Powell to blast that crazy Dominion theory into the mainstream.
"I also see reports that Nancy Pelosi's long time chief of staff is the key executive at that company,” Bartiromo asked Powell. “Richard Blum, Senator Feinstein's husband, is a significant shareholder of the company." Powell, unsurprisingly, agrees and says it proves “fraud” and “theft.”
See what happened? Baritomo took a piece of nonsense — floating through Twitter, 4chan, Parler, etc — and married it with another, unrelated, piece of nonsense. They talked about Avid Technologies and Dominion as though they were the same company. That idea was like a booster rocket, propelling the theory into the public conscienceless: The easily disprovable stuff would fall away, but the notion would keep flying towards the sun.
The “massive and coordinated effort” that Powell described on-air had been previewed to Bartiromo in an email the night before:
An email entitled “Election Fraud Info” Powell had received from a “source” which the author herself describes as “pretty wackadoodle.” This email—also received by [Lou] Dobbs—alleged Dominion was the “one common thread” in the “voting irregularities in a number of states.” In addition to promoting lies about Dominion, the sender claimed that Justice Scalia “was purposefully killed at the annual Bohemian Grove camp…during a weeklong human hunting expedition,” and that former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes (who died in 2017) and Rupert Murdoch “secretly huddle most days to determine how best to portray Mr. Trump as badly as possible.” The author continued: “Who am I? And how do I know all of this?…I’ve had the strangest dreams since I was a little girl….I was internally decapitated, and yet, I live….The Wind tells me I’m a ghost, but I don’t believe it.” The full force of the email’s lunacy comes across by reading it in its entirety.
That wasn’t the only lunacy feeding Bartiromo. Conspiracy-minded GOP sources, apparently, had her ear. As did Steve Bannon, who was awfully blunt with her: “This process is to destroy his [Biden’s] presidency before it even starts; IF it even starts….We either close on Trumps victory or del[e]gitimize Biden….THE PLAN.”
Up to that point, the Fox brass were leery of shooting the pure crazy straight into their veins.
“This Dominion shit is going to give a fucking aneurysm,” one producer texted an executive right after Baritomo’s show. “As many times as I’ve told Laura [Ingaraham] it’s bs, she sees shit posters and Trump tweeting about it.” The exec responds: “This is the Bill Gates/ microchip angle to voter fraud.”
On November 9, Arizona doublechecked their ballots and confirmed the Dominion voting machines’ result. But the fallout from Baritomo’s unhinged Sunday morning show — along with Trump’s increasingly verbose denialism, a raging online disinformation machine, and mounting ratings for Fox competitors Newsmax and One America News — had shifted something inside Fox.
That Monday, host Neil Cavuto cut away from a White House briefing that peddled some of the outlandish election-skepticism. “I can't in good countenance continue to show you this,” an exasperated Cavuto told his viewers. Executives panicked. They called Cavuto’s defense of reality a “brand threat.”
Sure enough, Newsmax began running Cauvto’s lapse of imagination as evidence that Fox can’t be trusted. Fox executives began to worry. Even if the network was, in their words, an “alternative universe,” they were nevertheless out to steal Fox viewers. Get on “war footing,” one urged.
A couple days later, Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich got to work debunking the conspiracy theories, including those on her own network. Fox brass freaked out.
Tucker Carlson texted Sean Hannity: “Please get her fired. Seriously…What the fuck? actually shocked…It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It's measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
Carlson and Hannity, going into meltdown that their obscene salaries could be at risk if the network loses viewers looking for ragefuel, began screaming at executives over one reporter’s lapse in faith.
A senior executive got the message. “She [Heinrich] has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted.”
Worth stopping here to note that the culture inside Fox leadership is, and I appreciate that this isn’t terribly surprising, totally antithetical to journalism. They wanted to give their viewers whatever they wanted, even if that was bug-eyed nonsense. And they were, at least internally, very open about it.
They sent around memos that Newsmax’s “conspiratorial reporting might be exactly what the disgruntled [Fox News Channel] viewer is looking for.” Declining rates meant that they should “not ever give viewers a reason to turn us off. Every topic and guest must perform.” That meant they must never turn off a Trump press conference.
If reporters dared criticize the White House line on electoral fraud, they were castigated by their bosses for not “respecting our audience.”
Internally, executives and these high-paid hosts were laughing at the clown show. One exec asked another whether Ingraham’s show would lay out the conspiracy theory “featuring Soros, Maduro , Chavez, Antifa, Cuba, and China?” Carlson, for his part, was calling Powell a “fucking bitch” who couldn’t stop lying on air. And, to his credit, he used his show to note that Powell never coughed up the mountain of evidence she was constantly blathering on about. “Our viewers are good people and they believe it,” Carlson texted.
And, yet, a few days later:
Even if Carlson didn’t want her on, Powell was booking regular segments on other Fox shows. And Carlson did have on Mike Lindell, a huge sponsor for his show and a leading proponent of all manner of election denialism nonsense.
That wasn’t enough for the pillowking, who went on Newsmax and said bag things about Fox. That was unacceptable for the suits. “Fox’s executives exchanged worried emails about alienating him and sent him a gift along with a handwritten note.”
Powell didn’t matter, as she wasn’t financing Fox. But Lindell’s conspiracy pillow business was placing huge ad buys on Carlson’s show. You have to keep cushy QAnon daddy happy.
Into December, the three-ring circus continued. Lou Dobbs, an under-rated candidate for worst person on TV, continued having Powell on his show — to, amongst other things, accuse Hugo Chavez of rigging the election — and kept touting her compelling “evidence,” even as he privately believed she was unreliable.
When deposed, Dobbs was pretty direct about what he really thought of his viewers:
Had you seen any evidence from Ms. Powell or anyone else to support that claim?
Did you tell your audience that?
“It's remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” a Fox executive remarked. Which is a hilariously unaware comment.
Fox journalists were trying to do the right thing: And they were being browbeaten by a bunch of morally bankrupt yacht owners who were trying to placate a mad hatter pillow lord.
“Oh, it is news.”
The best thing about lawsuits like these are the depositions.
Having been deposed once in my life, I can confirm they are horrible, unfair, annoying, and bring out one’s pettiest instincts. And yet, god, they’re fun to read — when it’s someone powerful.
So the fact that Fox boss Rupert Murdoch was deposed for this lawsuit is pure gold.
You are aware now that Fox did more than simply host these guests and give them a platform; correct?
Murdoch: I think you've shown me some material in support of that.
In fact, you are now aware that Fox endorsed at times this false notion of a stolen election?
Murdoch: Not Fox, No. Not Fox. But maybe Lou Dobbs, maybe Maria, as commentators. […]
Fox host Jeanine Pirro?
Murdoch: I think so.
Fox Business host Lou Dobbs?
Murdoch: Oh, alot.
Fox host Sean Hannity?
Murdoch: A bit.
Murdoch is playing naive. Even as he was loudly telling anyone who would listen how the election was free and fair, how Rudy Guliani had hit the booze too hard, and how Trump was playing a dangerous game, he conceded the need to steel the network against Newsmax. Or, as an underling put it: “Keep[ing] the audience who loves and trusts us...we need to make sure they know we aren’t abandoning them and still champions for them.”
Murdoch endorsed that idea: “All very true. Lots of sane Fox viewers still believe in Trump. Jack Keane for instance.”
Dominion’s lawyers got the emails that Keane was sending Murdoch, sent the day after Bartiromo’s deranged interview with Powell:
Dear Rupert, Maria B's Sunday show provided excellent coverage of serious election fraud allegations. Given that 4 contested states almost simultaneously stopped counting votes around midnite followed later by Alaska appears to be a coordinated and possibly a pre-planned event if Trump was leading[…]Moreover the Trump lawyers are alleging that the Democrats developed a software computer program to switch and also add votes which would help explain the reason for the vote stoppage.
Murdoch replied: “Thanks Jack, You may be right but Donald needs better lawyers than Rudy, who is past his prime.”
Lachlan Murdoch, the scion, was dispatching marching orders for the news hosts when a pro-Trump rally cropped up a couple of weeks after election day: “News guys have to be careful how they cover this rally. So far some of the side comments are slightly anti, and they shouldn’t be. The narrative should be this is a huge celebration of the president.”
They were not allowed to say publicly what poppa Murdoch was saying privately:
It is fair to say you seriously doubted any claim of massive election fraud?
Murdoch: Oh, yes.
And you seriously doubted it from the very beginning?
Murdoch: Yes. I mean, we thought everything was on the up-and-up. I think that was shown when we announced Arizona.
Even as Murdoch was warily dismissing the voting fraud claims, he was issuing missives like this: “Trump will concede eventually and we should concentrate on Georgia, helping any way we can. We don’t want to antagonize Trump further, but Giuliani taken with a large grain of salt. Everything at stake here.”
So Murdoch was happy to dictate coverage, weaponize his network to help the failed president — including, at one point, having his juniors dress down Shep Smith for calling out Trump’s lies — and yet:
You could have said to [CEO] Suzanne Scott or to the hosts, “Stop. putting Rudy Giuliani on the air”?
Murdoch: I could have. But I didn't.
There’s a quirky thing I was unaware of, until this lawsuit: Paul Ryan, former House speaker, sits on the Fox board.
Given he had been cannibalized by the Tea Party he once sought to harness, he had a uniquely useful perspective on the whole matter. Privately, he was pleading with Murdoch to stop the crazy. He told the Fox owner that “Fox News should not be spreading conspiracy theories.” He kept up that message right into the new year, when thousands of people who had listened to Fox tried to take their country back by laying siege to the capitol.
A week later, Ryan sent Murdoch and son an article from The Dispatch: The Alternate Reality Machine. It echoes some sentiments that you’re probably pretty familiar with, if you read this newsletter regularly. The piece singles out Trump’s “enablers” in the media.
Ryan told Murdoch that a huge number of Americans firmly believed their democracy had been taken away from them “because they got a diet of information telling them the election was stolen from what they believe were credible sources.”
Murdoch responds: “Thanks Paul. Wake-up call for Hannity, who has been privately disgusted by Trump for weeks, but was scared to lose viewers.” In a follow-up message, he promised “everything changed” after the insurrection.
Here we are, two years later, nothing has changed. Everything has gotten worse. Hell, everything went back to normal later that month.
In late January, Lindell was on Carlson’s show to proclaim: "I've been all-in trying to find the machine fraud. We found it. We have all the evidence." He proceeded to encourage Dominion to sue him. (Which they did.)
Maybe my favourite part of the Murdoch deposition is the following:
Is the Fox News Channel news, or is it entertainment?
Murdoch: Oh, it is news.
Whatever you say, man.
“I would be irresponsible to put him on the air.”
Fox’s defence in the suit is, to say the least, pretty weak — and it just might work.
In their defence, Fox presents their coverage as being bog standard reportage of “one of the biggest stories of the day.” Fox, they argue, “covered the story, providing extensive reporting and commentary on the President’s allegations, the lawsuits they spawned, and related government investigations.” That came from multiple perspectives, they posit, including denials of the alleged fraud. “Other FNN hosts offered protected opinion commentary about the President’s allegations. Individual reactions to those allegations varied among FNN hosts, just as individual opinion itself does.”
Dominion’s position, they contend, is that Fox “had a duty not to truthfully report the President’s allegations but to suppress them or denounce them as false.” (This defence is significantly undercut by the fact that Fox executives declined to put Trump on the air when he called in to Dobbs’ show amid the chaos of January 6, judging “it would be irresponsible to put him on the air.”)
In response to the pretty damning written arguments, rife with emails and documents gleaned from discovery, Fox contents: Dominon “lards up its brief with any cherry-picked statement it can muster from any corner of Fox News to try to demonstrate that ‘Fox’ writ large—not the specific persons at Fox News responsible for any given statement—’knew’ that the allegations against Dominion were false.” (Maybe they are just stupid! is some defence.) It goes on to note “Dominion’s history of controversy.”
All of this is a pretty flimsy defense. It completely sidesteps the idea that Fox wasn’t just airing the allegations, it was trumpeting them — and doing so because it knew its viewers, incorrectly, believed the theories.
But, they’re further invoking New York state’s SLAPP law, which protects news outlets from a wide array of defamation suits. It affords fairly wide latitude for media outlets to communicate and raises the bar for litigants — as someone currently using Ontairo’s SLAPP to defend against a vexatious lawsuit, I am a big fan. (The Delaware court still hasn’t decided whether to apply New York’s SLAPP law.)
Even if the SLAPP defence fails, Fox argues that Dominion hasn’t really suffered much damage from these claims at all. That might ultimately prove effective, if not at winning the case, then at least in limiting damages.
Regardless of the outcome, this suit has done a tremendous amount to demolish the wall that hides the disingenuousness hiding inside the Fox New studio. Driven by greed, those sociopaths are fully aware of the corrosive effect their work has, and yet they keep doing it.
That’s catnip for those who already hate Fox. But these sorts of admissions may ultimately weaken the station’s hold on its viewers — even if they do end up decamping to Newsmax and One America News.
Because if there’s one thing people hate more than anything, it’s dishonesty.
That’s it for this week.
In case you missed it, I contributed a report for CBC’s The National on how Ukraine is keeping its communications system up-and-running, even amid constant bombardment:
Here on the newsletter, for paying subscribers, I penned a rather long piece on anxiety and conspiracy theories. Consider signing up to read it, if you haven’t already.
Here’s a little excercept:
When researchers at the University of Kent sought to understand the relationship between anxiety and conspiracy theories, in 2018, they ran a questionnaire that tried to correlate belief in these theories with an array of variables. They accounted for gender, age, religious belief, a strong proclivity to social hierarchies, interpersonal trust, right-wing politics, a belief in the binary of good and evil, and anxiety, particular about interpersonal relationships.
There were four strong correlations: A firm belief in good and evil; an inclination towards strong social hierarchies; a high trust in others; and anxiety, in that order.
When the Kent researchers ran a second experiment, this time more closely studying the role of anxiety, things got even more interesting.
Anxiety — which was generally measured by questions like “I’m afraid that I will lose my partner’s love” and “I do not often worry about being abandoned” — was a much more pronounced indicator for belief in conspiracy theories, in general, than age, education, or religiosity. People who were anxious about their personal relationships were considerably more likely to believe in conspiracy theories than people who tended to be closed off, or avoidant, or personal relationships.
Researchers found that anxiety correlated more with conspiracy theories in general than in the specifics — anxious people were more inclined to think that bankers and politicians conspired against the masses than they were to think that 9/11 was an inside job, for example. So anxiety may lead to an inclination towards conspiracy theories, but it doesn’t seem to get you there on your own. Indeed, other research suggests that people with identified anxiety disorders are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories — perhaps suggesting that even just diagnosing that anxiety and finding coping mechanisms could be a way to reduce susceptibility to those narratives.
“Conspiracy theories may be adopted to meet the psychological need to feel secure,” the Kent researchers found.