Fox News’ Republican Propaganda Machine Tests Limits of Free Speech

Interview with Victor Pickard, professor of media policy and political economy, University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication, conducted by Scott Harris

Through the Dominion voting technology company’s $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News, we now have solid evidence of what much of the nation has known for decades, that the channel’s commentators regularly lie to their audience. With sworn testimony and text message communication between hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and owner Rupert Murdoch, it’s clear that Fox was fulfilling its role as a propaganda organ of the Republican party, where facts and truth were irrelevant to the company’s priorities of making big profits and disseminating lies.    

In addition to broadcasting blatant lies along Donald Trump’s false claim of a stolen election, the Dominion lawsuit also revealed that Fox provided Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, with confidential information about then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s political advertising and debate strategy. GOP House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s decision to release 44,000 hours of Jan. 6 Capitol surveillance video to Fox’s Tucker Carlson, resulted in his airing cherry-picked video clips on March 6, where he argued the Jan. 6th Capitol attack, where 5 people died, hundreds were injured and nearly 1,000 rioters were charged with crimes, was not a violent insurrection at all, but rather, Trump supporters benignly sightseeing.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Victor Pickard, professor of media policy and political economy and co-director at the Media, Inequality and Change Center at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. Here, Pickard discusses the Dominion lawsuit against Fox and the consequences for a media outlet that regularly weaponizes extremist propaganda that provokes political violence.

VICTOR PICKARD: Anyone who’s paid any attention whatsoever to how Fox News operates, this doesn’t come as a complete surprise. But at the same time, rarely has Fox’s anti-democratic behavior in their deep cynicism towards their audience and towards democracy writ large — has it ever been cast into such stark relief? It’s such overwhelming, such damning evidence that it really is noteworthy. It’s something that I think we all should be reflecting on as a society.

And just there are two levels to that, to the outrage, you might say. The first one, as you noted, is that these messages that came out through discovery in this lawsuit basically showed that not only that major commentators at Fox News like Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, but even Rupert Murdoch himself knew all along that the whole election denialism was a farce.

So it shows that they knew that this was not true to begin with. But then the second layer of the outrage is that they then tried to suppress the truth. They did not want their audience to know, or rather, they didn’t want it to seem like they weren’t as loyal to Trump as some of the other outlets, in particular, Newsmax.

They were very concerned about losing their audience to Newsmax as well as One America News Network. And so this just really drives home how dangerous a propagandistic source is. FOX so-called you know, we always want to put into scare quotes the “news” part. This is it’s really something that we as a society should be very concerned about.

SCOTT HARRIS: Thank you for that, Victor. I wondered if you’d talk briefly about the 1964 Supreme Court decision in the case called New York Times v Sullivan that impacts what the court is likely to do in this defamation lawsuit against Fox.

VICTOR PICKARD: Yeah, well, so I want to say upfront, I’m not a legal expert, so I don’t want to get too much into the weeds on this. But generally speaking, since that court decision and other decisions and other laws that have been put into effect, we give a lot of deference towards news organizations. Some people would also argue it’s protected by First Amendment protections, you know, allowing them to even in some cases err what’s known to be false news or misinformation.

But as long as they’re not overtly promoting misinformation. And so historically, it’s been very difficult to win defamation lawsuits like the one that’s being put forth here by Dominion.

However, legal experts that are looking closely at this think that this is pretty a pretty solid case, especially because of all these messages that were sort of being back channeled about what Fox News was actually doing.

And they were trying to suppress the truth. They were clearly trying to promote some of these falsehoods, some of this misinformation about voting, about you know, the very mechanics of our democracy. So I think they’ve got a winning argument here, at least potentially they could win this.

SCOTT HARRIS: Broadcasting lies to its audience in this case and in many cases across the years at Fox News seemed designed to incite violence. And I wonder, from your perspective beyond the Dominion defamation lawsuit, what can be done to either penalize Fox News or protect democracy from the poison that this Republican propaganda outlet spreads on a daily basis? I think there are plenty of examples of how people whose sole information source is Fox News, some of those folks are unstable. They’re prone to violence.

And we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, an example of how Fox News contributes to attacks on democracy itself. Beyond this lawsuit, what else can we do?

VICTOR PICKARD: Yeah, excellent question. We should always be wondering what’s to be done. And I think it’s important that we move beyond the critique. But we have to recognize that these are systemic problems, that there are incentives in place to sort of rationalize and justify this behavior. We have to change the system. It should be a multi-front assault in trying to rein in Fox News.

And, you know, certainly we need to be looking at law and policy to try to rein them in. But I think even more importantly, we need to be thinking about creating public alternatives and trying to create — And I’m not just talking about NPR, PBS — but really trying to imagine building out public media alternatives that aren’t driven by profit imperatives, but instead are doing what we all learn in school that news organizations are supposed to do, which is to protect and advance democracy.

But we need to really try to build out these public alternatives. And, you know, another attack that sometimes comes up in these discussions is advertising boycotts, which I think is something we always should be trying to do, put pressure on not just the journalists and the news organizations, but the advertisers who fund them. But in many cases, such as Tucker Carlson, that’s really not going to put a dent into his business model.

A lot of the money that Fox is getting from these programs is actually through carriage fees, basically the subscription fees. And so these advertiser boycotts, I’m afraid, have have limited utility.

But certainly we also have to just create our own alternative media and support programs like yours, Scott. This needs to be part of an alternative media ecosystem.

For more information, visit Victor Pickard’s website at

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Victor Pickard (29:49) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

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