Ever since Fox News Channel launched in 1996 with a slogan that was an aggressive lie – “Fair and Balanced” – most viewers have understood that Rupert Murdoch and his lackey Roger Ailes created a propaganda operation, not a news channel.
And yet the latest revelations of deception, hypocrisy, and greed among the network’s management and “stars,” unbound by any journalistic principle, are nevertheless stunning. Perhaps we still expect a measure of self-respect even from our villains. But here we see an essential and sometimes noble democratic endeavor – delivering the news to a self-governing people – degraded beyond redemption.
There is no way to regain the trust so wantonly forfeited by Murdoch and his minions in misleading their audience about “fraud” in the 2020 election. No other media company is as culpable in relentlessly goading the attempted coup and insurrectionary violence at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 – a deadly assault on the republic that Fox still insists on whitewashing, even after the humiliating exposure of its knowing promotion of the “Big Lie.”
The unavoidable question that Americans and their institutions now confront is how to excise this diseased organ from our body politic.
As Murdoch is the first to remind us, Fox News can shield itself behind the First Amendment, even as its operations undermine the United States and the Constitution itself. Fox is free to lie, if not to defame, and everyone else is free to ignore its spew. Outside the courts, where Dominion Voting Systems may soon impose a heavy price on the network’s chicanery, there are few means to punish or isolate the Murdoch outfit. For the most part, that’s a very good thing.
What we should have learned from the Dominion lawsuit and other glaring episodes, however, is that America needs to establish barriers against disinformation and propaganda masquerading as “news.” A free government may have a limited role here, focused on curbing the incursions of hostile foreign powers. But in a media universe where privately held entities predominate, it is those outlets that must establish the boundaries – and sanction the malefactors who grossly and repeatedly violate them.
In Washington, D.C., where the nation witnessed the terrible havoc wrought by Fox’s recklessness, there are a few organizations with the clout to whack the Murdochs and their enablers. The White House Correspondents Association, which credentials journalists who cover the president and administration, can expel Fox from its ranks (and deny access to its vaunted annual dinner). The Congressional Press Galleries, which perform the same function on Capitol Hill, can do likewise.
And so they should.
Beyond all the text messages exposing the snide duplicity of Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and their bosses, the exhibits in the Dominion lawsuit prove beyond doubt that Fox is not a news organization at all, but a partisan propaganda machine with no allegiance to the ideals of a free press.
The documents show Murdoch handing over Biden campaign ads, not yet aired, to Jared Kushner for the benefit of the Trump campaign -- an unlawful in-kind donation that provides the basis for a complaint to the Federal Election Commission. They depict the contempt expressed by him, his son Lachlan, and Fox executives for honest reporting that might harm ratings. Indeed, the lawsuit unearthed countless instances of conscious mendacity in election coverage.
What those incriminating documents don’t show is any commitment at Fox to the “health of the republic,” to “excellence in journalism,” to “robust news coverage” or to any of the aspirations that the correspondent’s groups claim to hold dear. No, what they show is precisely and undeniably the opposite.
It is worth noting that on the board of the White House Correspondents Association sits Jacqui Heinrich, a star witness to those Fox abuses. When the Emmy-winning Heinrich tweeted a fact-checking correction to Trump’s lies about election fraud – and specifically noted the lies emanating from Hannity as well – she infuriated powerful figures at the network who could crush her.
“Please get her fired,” the bullying Carlson urged Hannity. “Seriously…What the [expletive]? I’m actually shocked. It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.”
Rather than brush off that bullying rant, Fox executives forced Heinrich to delete her tweet – which had unforgivably reported plain and vital facts: “There is no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” (In an email to me after this column was published, Heinrich notes that she posted a second tweet correcting Trump that didn't include his tagging of her deceitful Fox colleagues, and later posted a couple more tweets correcting Trump election falsehoods.)
Heinrich got away without losing her job. At Fox, telling the truth is unacceptable and will likely get you fired, however – as Chris Stirewalt, the former Fox election analyst dumped for calling Arizona correctly on Election Night, discovered when Murdoch dumped him (and lied about the reason).
Whatever may happen if the Dominion lawsuit finally goes to trial, the nation’s leading journalists have the authority to register their disgust with Murdoch’s mockery of their vocation. To uphold their own professed standards, they have no other choice.