With $1.6bn at stake, Fox News is suddenly interested in freedom of the press
As it tries to defend itself against the accusation that it knowingly spread lies about the 2020 presidential election, Fox News has touted some lofty notions about the role of journalism in a democratic society.
“There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners,” said a recent company statement, “but the core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v Sullivan.”
The background, of course, is that Dominion Voting Systems is seeking $1.6bn in damages from the media giant, arguing that Fox News spread damaging falsehoods purporting that the voting machine company rigged the election to defeat Donald Trump. Dominion intends to show that network representatives at the highest levels – right up to Fox News’s founder, Rupert Murdoch – knew that this was utter nonsense, that the election was valid, and that their primary concern was not truth-telling but appeasing their disappointed pro-Trump audience.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe press rights belong to a wide spectrum of media organizations, whatever their political leanings.
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But Fox’s reliance on first amendment protections – while part of a legal strategy that may prove successful in court – is the height of hypocrisy. America’s founders believed it was essential that American citizens be well-informed about the behavior of public officials and other powerful entities, and thus be capable of self-governance.
The recent revelations from court filings, however, make it clear that such a noble mission was far from top of mind at Fox, not just in the aftermath of the 2020 election but going back years.
Take, for example, one of the network’s biggest stars, Sean Hannity, who ventured far outside the bounds of journalistic norms when he appeared with Trump at a 2018 campaign rally. (Fox brass, normally tolerant of their stars’ excesses, went so far as to reprimand him.)
Hannity, who has stated that he’s not a journalist, has played the role of a Trump insider – even an informal adviser to Republican officials. Recall his January 2021 text message to former chief of staff Mark Meadows and Republican congressman Jim Jordan: “Guys, we have a clear path to land the plane in 9 days,” apparently referring to persuading Trump to conclude his presidency peacefully before inauguration day.
“When Hannity advised the president about the ongoing insurrection he did not do so as a journalist but as an ally, a confederate, a teammate, rather than an umpire or observer,” the famed first amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told me last year, characterizing this as “non-journalistic behavior, in fact almost the precise opposite of journalistic behavior”.
And given Fox’s clear reliance on the landmark press-rights case Times v Sullivan, why haven’t its journalists grilled their new heartthrob, the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, about his newsworthy desire to weaken the journalistic protection it provides?
DeSantis wants the courts to revisit Times v Sullivan, but somehow this doesn’t get the attention of Fox News interviewers. His alarming views on that landmark decision, which established a higher bar for defamation lawsuits involving public figures, haven’t provoked a single challenge in his 12 Fox appearances this year, according to a Media Matters for America database.
Initially, Fox even forbade its own Howard Kurtz, who hosts a weekly show on the news media, from covering the Dominion case. After Kurtz, to his credit, publicly expressed his disagreement with that prohibition, and after plenty of outside criticism followed, the bosses relented long enough last weekend to let him discuss the case and call it a test of the first amendment.
Meanwhile, Fox hosts for years have urged their grievance-hungry audience to despise journalists. (Granted, over the years, Fox has sometimes filed “friend of the court” briefs in support of other media outlets.)
Rants against the media are a mainstay for personalities like Laura Ingraham, who drops disparaging phrases like “leftwing media hacks” and “regime media” into her segments.
But it took Tucker Carlson – the very face of Fox News – to go further in a 2021 interview, calling mainstream journalists “cringing animals not worthy of respect”.
“It just makes me sick. I really hate them,” said Carlson, who more recently has been busy portraying the violent insurrection on 6 January 2021 as a largely peaceful protest or even a friendly tourist visit.
Yet somehow, when it comes time to defend the network’s profit-driven willingness to circulate lies, Fox News is eager to claim solidarity with those supposedly despicable cowards. Now, you see, it’s all about journalists standing together, arm-in-arm, on the very underpinnings of American democracy.
I’m all for press rights and for applying them broadly. But somehow, I don’t think this was what the founders had in mind.
Fox News doesn’t deserve the second word in its name.
Margaret Sullivan is a Guardian US columnist writing on media, politics and culture