Editor’s Note: David Zurawik is a professor of practice in media studies at Goucher College. For three decades, he was a media critic at the Baltimore Sun. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Since Fox Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s deposition in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit was recently made public, there has been an avalanche of speculation about the effect his words will have on the network. Murdoch acknowledged that some Fox News hosts – Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Maria Bartiromo and former host Lou Dobbs – endorsed lies that the 2020 presidential election was stolen; and that he gave Jared Kushner confidential information about President Joe Biden’s ads and debate strategy in 2020.
Murdoch’s deposition clearly shows the hypocrisy, dishonesty and lack of anything resembling journalistic ethics at the top and in front of the camera at Fox News. And some viewers will surely be turned off by the network’s craven disregard for the truth. But has its credibility really been damaged beyond repair?
Hardly. For one thing, Fox was never a news network to begin with. Whereas a news network is a platform built on the premise that one of its first obligations is providing citizens with vetted information that they can use to be free and self-governing, Fox was founded in 1996 as a political platform and run by Roger Ailes, a political operative.
Ailes, a key member of the media team that helped put Richard Nixon in the White House in 1968, saw it as an outlet that could be used to promulgate and amplify a conservative viewpoint. From day one, it was about propaganda – not information. It was created as a counterbalance to what Ailes saw as a liberal bias in network TV, public radio and the top newspapers in the country. He cleverly referred to the channel as news, but it was always about politics and ideology first.
As conservative politics and the Republican Party have moved further to the right in the last decade, so has Fox, which came to understand it could make piles of money giving that viewing and voting public what it wants. It’s addicted to that money now, and there is no room for integrity – if there ever was any at Fox.
Now, it’s all about right-wing politics (the hotter and nastier, the better) and money. And not necessarily in that order, as Murdoch suggested in his description of why he allowed Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow, to espouse unfounded election conspiracies on Fox:
“It is not red or blue, it is green,” Murdoch said, according to the court documents. “The man is on every night. Pays us a lot of money … “
Think of how hard its primetime stars like Tucker Carlson were flogging anti-Covid-vaccine rhetoric during the pandemic, adding to the risk of death for some of the channel’s most vulnerable viewers. If you are willing to play fast and loose with the truth when it could mean life or death for viewers, how hard is it to lie to them about the results of an election? Why should anyone who had been paying attention to Covid-19 programming at Fox be surprised by the level of dishonesty the Dominion depositions revealed?
Today, Fox is further away from the news part of its name than ever. It still presents itself as a news channel in name using the tropes of anchor desks, correspondents and panels of guests.
But it’s become so much deeper culturally. Fox News is a world view, a lifestyle, a way of seeing the world, a 24/7 warm bath of false nostalgia and aggrievement primarily for older adults – some of whom are likely feeling left behind or threatened by the changes in American life. Fox tells them that if they are struggling, it is not their fault. The Democrats in Washington are giving the country away to immigrants and minorities – and the money is coming out of the viewers’ pockets, as illogical and false as that is.
If you look rationally at the potential effect of Murdoch’s admission, you might think some audience members would be so angry they might tune out the channel forever.
But that would be rational, and I believe that some of our most important relationships with media are anything but rational. They are visceral and often rooted in profound psychological and emotional needs, as anthropologist John L. Caughey chronicled in his groundbreaking book, “Imaginary Social Worlds: A Cultural Approach.”
I have relatives who turn on Fox News in the morning when they get up and turn it off when they go to bed at night.
As shocking and even disgusting as some of us in the mainstream media find Murdoch’s deposition, my relatives won’t be changing their viewing habits because of it. And I suspect most other viewers who have let Fox News that far into their lives won’t be either.