For Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, profit will always trump truth

The Dominion defamation lawsuit against Fox News might not have made it to trial, but the information from Fox internal emails and texts, as well as depositions, yielded new shockers every day in the lead-up to their settlement.

The sheer volume of startling revelations, which may quickly fade from memory, uncovered how one of the country’s biggest media powerhouses schemed to broadcast and amplify Trump’s lies about 2020 election fraud via voting machines owned by Dominion.

But all of those tawdry details, as horrendous as they are, threaten to bury the deeper story in this case: Corporate media organizations will do anything to make a dollar—including sacrificing democracy. Fox may be a stunning example, but that network isn’t alone. It’s merely the boldest example of how, with the help of the media, we’ve lost our grip on reality.

The lawsuit alleged that Fox network stars and editorial staff conspired to shore up ratings by promoting knowingly false conspiracy theories about Dominion Voting Systems (producer of electronic voting software) in the wake of the 2020 election. Documents submitted to the court by Dominion appeared to show the duplicity of “stars” like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Tucker Carlson praising Trump on air while denigrating him privately.

The messages suggested Trump wasn’t the only recipient of their disdain, however. Fox colleagues who tried to fact check the claims and even the network’s audience were equal recipients of scorn.

With such a flurry of heart-stopping revelations about Fox, some might have the idea that “The Big Lie” is what was being put on trial. In fact, the lawsuit was specifically about Dominion’s claim that Fox promoted deliberate or reckless lies about the company, which harmed Dominion’s reputation.

So, a judgment against Fox News would not have solved the problem of the corrosion of U.S. democracy at the hands of capitalism—and the out-of-court settlement between the two parties in the case definitely won’t. As legal experts RonNell Anderson Jones and Lyrissa Lidsky pointed out, defamation claims are “not designed to challenge the toxic but general lies infecting public discourse.”

It’s not been easy to keep track of developments in the case, in part because of all the confusing but sensational distractions, including whether Tucker Carlson is an “anchor,” a journalist, a pundit, an enabler, or just a very successful entertainer. The claim that a judgment for Dominion would have irreparably harmed the First Amendment raised a lot of eyebrows but offered little substance.

All of this served one purpose—to deflect attention from the evidence suggesting what was really the problem was a desperate bid to protect the Fox network’s enormous economic stake in stoking division and spreading disinformation. The documents submitted by Dominion to the court were riddled with desperate hand-wringing about the potential loss of audience if Trump’s lies weren’t repeated and supported on-air.

So, the solution was to whip up the people’s popular rage by dutifully spewing the toxic garbage delivered to the assignment desk. It was a stunning demonstration of the lengths to which some people will sink for the sake of the bottom line. As former Fox News managing editor Bill Sammon is quoted as saying in court filings, “It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things.”

Perhaps even worse, much media coverage of the spectacle brushed aside the central issue: Regardless of who might have won if there had been a trial, the case was just the latest evidence that whatever democratic space has been won is rapidly losing ground to the worst of capitalism.

The right-wing assault on U.S. democracy started long ago (some say Ronald Reagan’s to blame), and people have always been at odds over social and political issues. But the inception of Murdoch’s Fox Corporation breached the barricades by boldly revving up the attack on reality.

“The Big Lie” might never have happened if media companies had not succumbed to the frenzy of cut-throat competition required in a capitalist society. Rupert Murdoch, 92, is one of the most influential players. He has a lot riding on capitalism. His net worth today is estimated at somewhere around $18 billion.

He was thrust into the publishing business at age 22, inheriting News Corporation of Australia from his father when the latter died. Murdoch wasted no time, almost immediately buying newspaper after newspaper in Australia and, eventually, the U.K. He grew the business quickly by adopting a tabloid style—flashy pictures and sensational stories. By the time he entered the U.S. media market in 1979, he had already mastered the game of pandering—giving the audience “what they want,” or at least, what it took to get them into the big tent, and keep them there.

Keeping the audience is key in Murdoch’s world. Unfortunately, it seems, the truth alone isn’t enough. No sensational contrivance is too brash or too fake. To stay on top, Murdoch manipulates the truth so much that his audience begins to lose its grip on reality. And that’s when conspiracy theories gain purchase, creating irrational fear and unreasoning distrust of people and institutions, and finally, leading to the chaos and paranoia rampant in the culture today.

It’s not unreasonable to lay this full-throated attack on reality at Murdoch’s feet. His personal maxim might as well be “Dominate at all cost!” And his sole reason for dominating is to make more obscene profits. He cares not one bit about objectivity. He’s not committed to “fair and balanced” coverage. If he discovered he could get more eyeballs by pushing a radical left agenda, he might even hop on board that train in a hot minute.

But the left wing doesn’t buy ad time. And it doesn’t attract consumers the way the salacious, sordid shrieking from the extreme right does. Young Murdoch, assuming the helm of the modest Murdoch estate, seized on yellow journalism, so popular in the late 19th century. With his influence, it made a comeback, heralding the victory of the sensational over truth, and of bias over objectivity.

Just looking at his media empire, it’s easy to see that the notion of the fourth estate—a watchdog over the Constitution and democracy—has gone the way of manual typewriters and smoke-shrouded newsrooms.

Using uncontrolled capitalism as his sword, Murdoch set about laying waste to democracy, leading the way to fascistic authoritarian rule. He does it by assembling a vast monopoly of media outlets—publishing holdings, broadcasting and cable, movies, and video production. His footprint is enormous in Australia, where he owns more than 150 national, regional, and local newspapers. He owns three major newspapers in the U.K.

In the U.S., he owns The Washington Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Post. Also in the U.S., he owns 27 stations in the Fox Television Stations group. And, of course, he owns Fox News. It’s impossible to name all his holdings here, but most sources agree, he owns hundreds, yes hundreds of media outlets.

Technically, the Murdoch empire is not a monopoly. But a look at its holdings worldwide is breathtaking. The most important thing is with this boundless estate, Murdoch can shape media messaging which, in turn, influences social and political discourse. This gives Murdoch an outsized voice among both elected and appointed power brokers who can steer public policy and laws favorably for his continued media dominance.

This is why he doesn’t care about democracy. In fact, if he could replace democracy with autocracy and make more money, he wouldn’t hesitate to do so.

Make no mistake. His campaign involves more than just manipulation of the media. It involves manipulation of the political power base he needs to continue his domination, his quest to have more and more and more.

The first of the Society of Professional Journalists’ four principles of ethical journalism is “Seek Truth and Report It,” followed by “Minimize Harm.” Looking at it now, SPJ’s code of ethics seems almost quaint. Ethical journalism “should be accurate and fair…honest and courageous.” Journalists should “take responsibility for their work” and “verify information before releasing it.” They should “take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify.” Those are just the highlights pertaining to seeking truth and reporting it.

Under “Minimize Harm,” the SPJ code says “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public…with…respect.” It’s followed by “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity” and “consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.” That’s just the first half; the list also exhorts journalists to act independently and to be accountable and transparent.

Murdoch and most of his crew wouldn’t be able to pass a simple quiz on these principles.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that capitalism does not value people. People are only useful as puppets. There is no respect for people who are in distress due to homelessness, hunger, or poverty. And there is no concern about the mental anguish and panic people experience when they begin to lose grip on what is real or not, what is true or false.

No, capitalism does not value people. It exploits them, chewing up their lives in order to assure the powerful remain powerful.

The last sentence in the preamble of SPJ’s statement of principles says, “An ethical journalist acts with integrity.” Unfortunately, as Murdoch and his ilk seem to think, integrity doesn’t buy you wealth and power.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.

Image Credits: Money, Money, Money, Money by Austin Kirk (CC BY 2.0) / Rupert Murdoch – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009 by World Economic Forum (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) / Tucker Carlson by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Sean Hannity by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0) / Laura Ingraham (52586805818) (cropped) by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Rena Weaver
Rena Weaver

Rena Weaver is a journalist, educator, and media critic.