For anyone curious to learn what it would be like to serve as a juror in the upcoming defamation suit brought by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News, you can create a simple life hack in the comfort of your home. First, tee up Tucker Carlson’s recklessly mendacious segment devoted to clumsily decontextualized footage from the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol. Then, consult the recent barrage of headlines concerning the latest tranche of evidence from Dominion’s legal team that the judge in the case has unsealed.
Over at Fox News, take careful note of Carlson’s trademark bewildered preppy mien as he pronounces that “no honest person” can accept the politicized narrative of the uprising promulgated by the House select committee investigating the failed coup. Note his gleeful effort to deconstruct the circumstances surrounding the death of Capitol police officer Brian Sicknick, and his labored agitprop defenses of the sullied honor of “QAnon Shaman” Jacob Chansley and fleet-footed insurrection cheerleader Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. Marvel as he proclaims that January 6 was neither an “insurrection” nor “deadly.”
OK, now that you’ve weathered this inaugural installment in what’s sure to be a long series of two-minute hates orchestrated by Carlson’s production team and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, toggle over to the latest revelations from the Dominion suit—part of a 6,500-page dump of unsealed court documents. There you’ll meet what looks to be a very different Tucker Carlson, who derides both the unhinged dogmas of the election-denying Trump legal team in real time, and vents to his producer that the whole Trump presidency was a travesty: “We’re all pretending we’ve got a lot to show for it,” the private Carlson wrote, “because admitting what a disaster it’s been is too tough to digest. But come on. There really isn’t an upside to Trump.”
That’s not all. Just two days prior to the insurrection, Carlson was privately evincing a very different sort of glee than he does while taking every conceivable sort of on-air affront on behalf of MAGA nation. “We are very, very, very close to being able to ignore Trump most nights,” he exulted. “I truly can’t wait.” He went on to text this about our 45th president:
I hate him passionately…. What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that. He could easily destroy us if we play it wrong.
Of course, Fox viewers themselves aren’t going to experience the acute cognitive dissonance of trying to make these two Tucker Carlsons match up, since the network has instituted a de facto omertà on coverage of the Dominion suit. But this one case study in journalistic duplicity for cash is the core narrative you see across the many pages of the Dominion complaints. It’s the same story when Sean Hannity tells colleagues he doesn’t “believe for one second” the deranged election lies of Trump-aligned legal hack Sidney Powell, and then dresses down a Fox reporter to the network’s CEO for daring to fact-check Trump’s lying election tweets. It’s what Laura Ingraham is doing when she talks like an aggrieved high school student about how the news division “hates” her, Carlson, and Hannity (while also, of course, being secretly jealous of them!). Ingraham also privately dismissed the Sidney Powell school of fabrication and fraud—but she told Carlson and Hannity that the moment was ripe for a full-scale pundit revolt at the network: “We should all think about how together we can force a change. The audience that exists comes for us.”
Once more, Ingraham was whining into the void. No transfer of corporate power to the A-list pundit roster was required, for the simple reason that Fox’s business model is founded exactly on the sort of coordinated lying that we see her and her prime-time colleagues mapping out to rescue the network’s imperiled market share in the aftermath of the 2020 election. From the Iraq War to the countless iterations of the war on Christmas, from the urban folktales about Black Panthers shutting down polling places to the great dog-whistle oratorios about “critical race theory,” the network has consistently bent its coverage for maximum right-wing agitprop impact. The only real mystery is how such a blindingly obvious state of affairs is still up for debate in this advanced stage of American civic ruin.
Even a cursory review of Fox’s corporate history drives this essential point home. Fox News founder and patron saint Roger Ailes was no hard-bitten newshound in the mold of Friend Friendly or Edward R. Murrow; he broke into television as a producer for Mike Douglas’s daytime happy-talk show. It was there that he met presidential candidate Richard Nixon, and maneuvered his way into a spot as communications guru for that fabled GOP knife fighter. After he was unceremoniously exiled from the Nixon White House, Ailes tried his hand as a Broadway producer. Ailes was so fiercely devoted to commercial success for its own sake that he produced Mother Earth, an environmentalist musical starring Toni Tennille—for a Broadway run that lasted all of 10 days. If the fickle theater audiences of 1972 had taken a shine to this tree-hugging extravaganza, we might well be inhabiting an alternate cable and political universe today.
It was only the launch of MSNBC—where Ailes performed the wholly gratuitous sin of launching Chris Matthews’s career—that introduced him to the great market potential of wall-to-wall cable political coverage. Ailes cribbed the playbook that future Supreme Court justice Lewis Powell had outlined for the corporate management of reactionary resentment back in the early 1970s, and, with the eager backing of Australian press lord Rupert Murdoch, the Fox business model was born. It was, among other things, a stunning work of doublethink; since Ailes and his lieutenants were immersed in the theology of allegedly rampant liberal media bias, they instantly deployed a coy yet confrontational branding strategy. Fox claimed to be “fair and balanced” in contrast to the unhinged hippie-appeasing work of its network rivals; it also adopted the deferential slogan “We report, you decide,” to let its viewers know it would stoke any posture of cultural or political affront then on offer.
With the stirring symmetry of a Greek tragedy, Fox now finds itself in peril thanks to the unstated logic behind those founding mantras. The bad-faith pledge of “fair and balanced,” when applied to the perennial race-to-the-bottom in the quest for right-wing power, translates into the uncritical platforming of any and all agitprop fables of the political moment. In other words, the polar opposite of news judgment. And “We report, you decide,” apart from its blatant falsity on both counts, is here exposed as so much more cable bloviating. Amid the C-suite panic over “respecting” the Fox audience, its viewing public was then clamoring for the overthrow of American democracy to see culture war commissar Trump—another creature, never let it be forgotten, of the debased market values of the television industry—installed as dictator for life.
The real scandal of the Dominion paper trail isn’t so much that Fox personalities talked smack about the credulity and competence of Sidney Powell and Donald Trump behind their backs; even Fox on-air talent is able to recognize the head-thumpingly obvious. No, the outrage here is that Fox executives and bookers had given pride of place to the ideal-type that Powell and Trump represented from the moment of the network’s founding. The inevitable forensic focus on the backroom discussions of the merchants of 2020 election lies, while crucial to the case Dominion is making, overlooks the big picture. For every authoritarian crank conspiracy theorist that Fox talking heads and corporate managers may have entertained private reservations about, there were dozens upon dozens who sailed through its green rooms, into its studios, and out into the collective brainpan of right-wing America. The calculation was simply that granting them airtime would reliably enrich the Fox News power elite. So however the Dominion suit plays out in the Delaware courts, the problem Fox poses for our beleaguered democratic public life isn’t going away—and should Carlson, Hannity, Ingraham, and company feel the pinch of an adverse $1.6 billion verdict against the network, they can protest in all seriousness that they were only doing their jobs.