Why Fox News Lied to Its Viewers

The network’s hosts and leaders knew that Trump had lost the election, but feared the consequences of telling their audience the truth.

The word "facts," shaped to resemble a television
The Atlantic

Fox News lies to its viewers. Its most prominent personalities, among the most influential in the industry, tell their viewers things they know not to be true. This is not accusation, allegation, or supposition. Today, we know it to be fact.

Early in the Trump era, news organizations were torn over whether to refer to Donald Trump’s false statements as lies, because it is difficult to know an individual’s state of mind, to know what they know. In the throes of insecurity, ideological conviction, or carelessness, people can make statements that are false without malicious intent. The argument over what a person knows to be true or false can take on a metaphysical aspect.

Sometimes, though, you have proof that someone knew one thing and said another. With Fox News, examples of the network’s commitment to knowingly misleading its viewers abound. There was the irresponsible hyping of anti-vaccine propaganda even as it imposed a vaccine mandate on its employees. There were the text messages from Fox hosts released by the January 6 committee showing that they saw Trump as responsible for inspiring the mob that sacked the Capitol, even as they defended him on air and downplayed the significance of the event.

Sometimes, defending itself in court, the network will argue that a reasonable person would not assume that everything its on-air personalities say are true. In 2020, the network successfully beat a defamation lawsuit by arguing that Tucker Carlson is “not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’”

The most compelling example of Fox News consciously lying to its viewers, however, arrived yesterday with the evidence in the defamation lawsuits filed by the voting-machine company Dominion, over claims aired on Fox News echoing Trump’s lie that the 2020 election had been fixed by compromised voting machines. Dominion’s latest filing argues that privately, Fox News hosts admitted that the allegations of election fraud being floated by Trump allies were baseless, but they kept airing them, in part because they feared that another right-wing network, Newsmax, was stealing their audience. The filing shows that when Fox News reporters shot down the allegations publicly, the network’s big personalities were livid, complaining internally that telling their viewers the truth was hurting the network’s brand.

“It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” the Fox News executive Bill Sammon wrote to a colleague about the network’s coverage of the “fraud” conspiracy.

Fox News’s lawyers have responded by arguing that they were merely covering newsworthy allegations; a spokesperson dismissed the revelations in the Dominion filing as “cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context” to The New York Times. “Freedom of speech and freedom of the press would be illusory if the prevailing side in a public controversy could sue the press for giving a forum to the losing side,” the lawyers said in a filing.

This is true, as far as it goes. But internally, the messages in Dominion’s filing suggest that network officials knew they were exercising editorial judgment that would lead their audience to see the fictitious election-fraud allegations as not simply newsworthy, but legitimate, which they properly understood to be irresponsible.

The Dominion filing drives home a few points. One is that there is a Fox News propaganda feedback loop: The network inflames right-wing conspiracism, but it also bows to it out of partisan commitment and commercial incentive. Another is that despite the long-standing right-wing argument that conservatives distrust mainstream media outlets because they do not tell the truth, Fox News executives and personalities understand that their own network loses traction with its audience when it fails to tell the lies that the audience wishes to hear. There are infinite examples of the mainstream press making errors of omission, fact, or framing. But as the private communications in the Dominion filing show, the mainstream media’s unforgivable sin with this constituency is not lying, but failing to consistently lie the way conservative audiences want them to.

Looking at these internal messages however, the confident, implacable cynicism on the right about how mainstream media outlets work is easier to understand. It is a reflection of how some of their own media institutions function, combined with an assumption that everyone else operates in a similarly amoral way.

Internally, Carlson referred to Sidney Powell, the attorney who was spreading the false fraud allegations, as a “complete nut,” while the Fox News host Sean Hannity said in a deposition that the “whole narrative that Sidney was pushing, I did not believe it for one second.” But Carlson and Hannity also demanded that the Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich be fired after she fact-checked one of Trump’s tweets spreading the false election-fraud claims about Dominion, with one Fox executive fretting that viewers would be “disgusted.” The offending tweet was deleted. In another email, a different Fox executive feared that what he called “conspiratorial reporting” at Newsmax “might be exactly what the disgruntled FNC viewer is looking for,” later warning, “Do not ever give viewers a reason to turn us off. Every topic and guest must perform.”

There is also a story here about how social media and analytics can compel even powerful media institutions to meet a strong demand for falsehoods. Fox News executives understood that the election-fraud allegations were nonsense, and they also understood that their audience wanted to hear them. Misinformation and propaganda are not novel problems, but modern technology renders the incentives to lie to an audience particularly clear, and the means to reach that audience particularly easy to access. There will always be a potentially profitable demand for self-flattering lies; ethical people and institutions resist supplying them. The ability of individual hustlers to amass an audience of sycophants by feeding them conspiracies puts pressure on more mainstream outlets to gently appease conspiracism, if not to fully capitulate to it.

Finally, if Fox News beats this lawsuit, it will be because of the very free-speech protections that the conservative movement has spent years railing against. The appropriately high “actual malice” legal standard, which holds that only statements about public figures that are knowingly false or show a reckless disregard for the truth are actionable, has protected public criticism of powerful figures for decades. Right-wing legal elites, including several Supreme Court justices, would like to destroy this standard, which would enable the rich and powerful to more easily silence criticism of their conduct.

The network may ultimately prevail; that’s what all those fancy lawyers get paid for. But if consciously lying to your audience about election fraud in order to keep them watching your network doesn’t meet the standard for actual malice, it’s difficult to imagine what a powerful media company could do that would. And even if Fox News ultimately loses the Dominion lawsuit, I would not expect its audience to abandon it. After all, the network remains willing to tell them what they know to be true—even if it isn’t.