After the 2020 presidential election Fox News spread all manner of disinformation, repeating Donald Trump’s ‘Big Lie’ that millions of fraudulent votes had been cast, resulting in his re-election defeat. Fox News’ false charge that two election technology companies, Dominion and Smartmatic, had secretly employed software to flip Trump votes to Biden votes, resulted in two multi-billion dollar lawsuits against the Fox network and its owner Rupert Murdoch.
Through discovery in Dominion’s $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit, the court made public dozens of Fox News on-air hosts’ internal text messages. Those messages clearly revealed that Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were keenly aware of the lies being pushed by Trump and his allies, asserting that the election was rigged, but nonetheless enthusiastically promoted those lies to millions in their audience.
Communications between the hosts revealed that their overriding concern was losing audience share to more radical right-wing news channels, resulting in a decrease in Fox stock price and their demand that a Fox fact checker who called out their lies be fired. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Sergio Muñoz, Media Matters For America’s vice president of research and policy. Here, he discusses what this lawsuit has confirmed about Fox News operating as a propaganda arm of the Republican party and the danger of a major network weaponizing toxic disinformation that provokes political violence, such as what the nation witnessed in the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection.
SERGIO MUÑOZ: I’m sure no one’s surprised when we’ve been warning for years that Fox News is basically a propaganda outlet and not a true news outlet. A propaganda outlet pretty much in cahoots with the Republican party. We’ve been saying that forever and that’s based on our observation, 20 years of observation and analysis and research. But what was in this public version of the lawsuit was proof. This was the receipt.
I mean, it is just very illustrative of how much a propaganda operation they were. And specifically to the Dominion case, we have plenty of text messages and depositions of them admitting from the very beginning —— producers, reporters, pundits, some of their top names on primetime —— that they knew this was all a lie. We have confirmations. We have texts from Tucker Carlson, the producers, to Laura Ingraham, to the producers, to the executives at Fox News who knew this was all a lie. Not just election conspiracy theories in general, but specifically what they were saying about Dominion.
So right there you have in this public version, this motion for summary judgment. You have the proof right in front of you that actual malice has been met. They acted not only in actual disregard for the truth, they knew the truth at that time. And I’ll give you some of these choice quotes, which shows that not only are they seriously in danger of losing this defamation case, which could be to the tune of billions of dollars.
But just what they were saying also confirms that they immediately responded to pressure from these other two far-right networks that were you know, they were worried were stealing their audience because they were just going way into the deep end of the fever swamps, the conspiracy theories. And Fox News’ response was, “Let’s not let them take our audience. So let’s just talk more … that is even more insane and more ludicrous.”
And that’s exactly what they did, even though they knew it was false. We have texts from Tucker Carlson immediately telling his producers that Trump’s lawyers —— “I caught them lying. They’re lying. Just a bit nuts. Sorry, but she is.”
You have the chairman of Fox Corp., Rupert Murdoch, who I’m sure your listeners are familiar with, immediately recognizing that this was, quote unquote, “Really crazy stuff, terrible stuff damaging everybody, I fear.” The reporters talking about how dangerously insane this stuff was. This was them basically admitting to each other.
And now it’s revealed that they knew this was all insane and in their own words, B.S. in their own words. “Mind blowingly nuts” in their own words. You know, “F-word lunatics in their own words.” Totally off the rails.
SCOTT HARRIS: I can speak for myself and I think you and the folks over at Media Matters for America and most of our listeners, we’re all in favor of upholding and protecting the First Amendment to the Constitution and free speech in this country. But we have an example here of Fox News that has really poisoned disinformation to the point where it played a critical role in a violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6 and provoked other political violence across the country.
And I’m wondering, from your perspective, what do we do about that? We want to protect free speech, but at the same time, the Constitution is not a suicide pact and we don’t want “Fire” to be shouted in a crowded theater where it endangers lives.
SERGIO MUÑOZ: Of course, we agree with you completely that the First Amendment has a long and venerable history in this country. And in many respects, the First Amendment and just free speech in general is something that is very unique to this country and for very good reason. However, the First Amendment has never been absolute. You have to balance that against other constitutional rights and against other societal interests.
And it was decided by the Supreme Court a long time ago that it is not the same thing — the traditional free speech protections as intentionally spreading disinformation and political disinformation. I don’t think anybody would make the argument that the founders originally, or the Supreme Court later when they were analyzing the First Amendment, were thinking about intentional disinformation, weaponized propaganda.
And that, unfortunately, is what this right-wing media ecosystem has become. And we have seen the consequences. This was a false narrative which literally led to an insurrection in our nation’s Capitol in an attempt to overthrow the current government. That’s the situation right now that Fox is dealing with, that they are parties to this design and a very dangerous one, which the Supreme Court has never protected.
Learn more about the lawsuits against Fox News and what they reveal about the right-wing network, by visiting Media Matters for America at mediamatters.org.
Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Sergio Muñoz (19:41) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.
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