By now you probably know about the filing by Dominion Voting Systems in its $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News. It includes a vast trove of communications to and from various Fox hosts — including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham — as well as Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott and Rupert Murdoch, chair of the parent corporation of Fox News.
The most wonderful part of the filing is Carlson’s inspiring, principled stand against telling the truth. On November 12, 2020, nine days after the election, Carlson flagged a tweet for Hannity and Ingraham by Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich. In it Heinrich had accurately pointed out that there was “no evidence” for then-President Donald Trump’s preposterous claims about the election being stolen by Dominion’s voting machines.
Heinrich’s reference to reality understandably enraged Carlson. He texted his fellow hosts: “Please get her fired. Seriously… What the fuck? 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.” Heinrich didn’t lose her job, but her tweet soon disappeared.
Carlson’s concern was that Fox’s viewers simply wouldn’t accept the facts and, if presented with them, would flock to competitors who would tell them the comforting lies for which they yearned. At about the same time, Carlson texted his producer that “we’re playing with fire, for real … an alternative like newsmax could be devastating for us.”
It’s easy and fun to jeer at Carlson for his hilarious deceit, and I wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from doing so. It’s especially enjoyable to find out Carlson believes Trump is “a demonic force” (page 43 of the filing), yet has never told his audience this. In fact, Carlson still enjoys sharing a hearty guffaw with the demonic force at Saudi golf tournaments.
But once we’re done pointing and laughing at Carlson, we have to think more seriously about this if we’d like to have a society that’s based — at least a little bit — on rationality and evidence. Because in the society we have now, Carlson should logically be rewarded for everything he’s done.
Fox Corporation has shareholders who expect it to make as much profit as possible. According to one of Fox Corporation’s recent fillings, its “competitive strengths” include “premium brands that resonate deeply with viewers.” In particular, “FOX News is among the most influential and recognized news brands in the world.”
You’ll note that Fox does not claim that one of its strengths is, say, “exposing its viewers to the cold, pitiless light of reality.” That’s because its viewers don’t want that. Imagine you’ve created an extremely profitable business by getting 5-year-olds to tune in every night to hear about how much Santa Claus loves them, and also that the world is full of terrible people trying to assassinate Santa Claus. You wouldn’t switch things up all of a sudden and tell your 5-year-olds that there is no Santa Claus. They’d immediately switch channels to Santamax.
This fact about television “news” was explained cogently in a 1970 memo produced by the Nixon White House that illuminates the thinking behind Fox in embryonic form. Titled “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News,” the memo explains that television news was popular because “People are lazy. With television you just sit — watch — listen. The thinking is done for you.” (Emphasis in original.) The last thing you want to do is drive viewers away by forcing them to think.
Viewer loyalty is especially important to Fox because of the structure of its revenue stream. According to the New York Times, Fox Corporation’s cable segment, which mostly consists of Fox News, took in $283 million in ad revenue in the first three quarters of 2021. But licensing fees — what cable and satellite companies pay to carry Fox News — were $1.07 billion. This explains why Fox’s top concern must naturally be its viewers. Non-cable “free” news makes essentially all its money from advertising, meaning it wants to keep advertisers happy above all else. But Fox needs the specific audience it’s cultivated — i.e., not just any group of affluent watchers who will appeal to advertisers, but the people who are addicted to Fox’s comforting worldview. This is especially true since only a small fraction of cable subscribers actually watch Fox News, even as it commands much higher fees per subscriber than other news outlets. Fox depends on maintaining an audience who will complain vociferously if their cable providers drop their favorite network – which leads us to yet another way in which our corporate overlords cater to the right-wing mob, because Verizon, AT&T and other cable companies don’t have the backbone to tell Fox they won’t continue to overpay the network.
In other words, Tucker Carlson & Co. were simply doing their actual jobs — that is, protecting the profitability of Fox News. Meanwhile, by focusing on the facts, Heinrich was genuinely damaging the company and therefore not doing her actual job. You can hope that corporate employees somehow will act in ways that damage their company’s profitability in defense of journalistic ethics, because it’s the “right” thing to do. This kind of hope will be fulfilled as much as 2 percent of the time.
In fact, seen from this perspective, the only thing Carlson did wrong was foolishly expressing his views in forms that were discoverable in a lawsuit. On Wall Street the smarter executives are sophisticated enough not to do this, and message each other “f2f” — i.e., face-to-face — to indicate to their co-workers when they need to discuss something that wouldn’t look good if written out and cited in court.
Telling the truth is generally not just unprofitable, it’s also actively anti-profit.
So in the end, the problem with Fox News is the problem of all for-profit news organizations. Fox may present it in an especially distilled, enraging, shameless form. But neither advertisers nor, unfortunately, most people want to hear things that conflict with their treasured illusions about the world. For-profit news outlets can do great investigative reporting, but that reporting is itself generally not profitable and is subsidized by their cooking apps or sports coverage that actually do make money. By itself, telling the truth is generally not just unprofitable, it’s also actively anti-profit. The lesson of the Dominion lawsuit isn’t that Fox is extremely bad, although it is. It’s that to have a news system that works, we have to take profit out of the equation.