Dominion lawsuit shows Fox News has learned nothing from January 6

Despite a violent insurrection and massive lawsuits, the network has only intensified its fascistic propaganda

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 1, 2023 6:00AM (EST)

Rupert Murdoch (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Rupert Murdoch (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Dominion Voting Systems is not messing around.

It's not just that the company has sued Fox News for $1.6 billion — arguing that the company's promotion of Donald Trump's Big Lie also meant defaming the ballot box manufacturers — Dominion clearly plans to draw out the public humiliation of Fox News leadership one shocking court filing at a time, exposing just how much Fox News knowingly lies to its audience and how little they care if their actions get people hurt or killed. After last week's document dump that included texts from Tucker Carlson trying to fire a reporter for telling the truth about who won the 2020 election, Dominion is back this week with another doozy.

Focused on Fox News Chairman Rupert Murdoch and how he knew exactly what his company was doing when they repeatedly floated conspiracy theories falsely accusing President Joe Biden of stealing the election, the latest filing also reveals something new: Fox News leadership had a very good idea of the hazards of hyping Trump's Big Lie, but, motivated by profit and a desire for GOP victory, they did it anyway.

As their behavior since then has shown, Fox News executives and hosts have learned nothing from either the January 6 insurrection or from the Dominion lawsuit. If anything, the company's commitment to stoking fascist sentiment and violence-inciting disinformation has only deepened.

"If there's one theme that has really emerged from Dominion's court filings, it's this: The Fox business model depends entirely on propping up the flattering lies that Trump and his followers tell about themselves."

Reading through the latest filing, one really sees how Murdoch and other Fox leadership weren't just aware that Trump's Big Lie wasn't true, but that they knew it was dangerous. Murdoch himself called it a "danger" and internal documents show leadership worried the Big Lie "undermines faith in Democracy, faith in the nation." Former Republican Speaker of the House and current Fox board member Paul Ryan warned that "election lies" were a threat to the company's financial future, as well as to "the country and for the conservative movement itself."

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As Trump's coup went on, anxieties rose within the company over the role they were playing in amplifying the Big Lie. "On January 5, Rupert and Scott discussed whether Hannity, Carlson, and Ingraham should say some version of 'The election is over and Joe Biden won,'" the court filing reads. "He hoped those words 'would go a long way to stop the Trump myth that the election stolen.'"

But rather than go forward with it and risk "pissing off the viewers," ultimately no statement was released. "The next day was January 6," the document reads. 

This is the pattern that echoes throughout this court filing and previous ones. Internally, Fox leadership expressed worry about the risks of hyping the Big Lie, but the pressure from viewers and from departments like the "Brand Protection Unit" would convince them to stick it out. The insurrection accelerated the crisis of faith with Trump. Internally, there was talk of a "course correction" and "pivoting" away from Trump. Ryan said he had been "hopeful that the events of January 6 were so shocking that it would help the conservative movement and Fox News move on from Donald Trump."

As Matthew Gertz of Media Matters tweeted in a sarcastic understatement in response to the filing, "This... did not really happen."

If anything, the past two years have only shown Fox News doubling down on Trump, Trumpism, and the strategic deployment of disinformation. Instead of facing up to the role that they played in amplifying the lies that led to January 6, the network pivoted towards minimizing and making excuses for January 6. Often, their rhetoric contradicts itself. Sometimes they pretend the violent insurrection was merely a peaceful protest. Other times, they admit it was violent but pretend the rioters were actually FBI agents or "antifa" just trying to make Trump supporters look bad. 

"The Fox business model depends entirely on propping up the flattering lies that Trump and his followers tell about themselves."

Even more amazingly, despite the $1.6 billion lawsuit they're facing down, the network continues to hype the Big Lie. Just this past June, for instance, host Tucker Carlson ran a segment suggesting it's ridiculous to believe "Biden got 10 million more votes than Barack Obama got." (It's actually 14 million more votes, and the reasons are simple: Population growth plus the desire to throw out Trump motivated astronomical Democratic voter turnout.) The network continues to falsely suggest there are valid "questions" about the way the election was run, and Carlson has claimed the "FBI, CIA" are being used "to change political outcomes." They may play word games that allow them to insinuate the Big Lie rather than state it outright, but the insurrection-friendly message is unmistakable. 

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We should not be surprised, in that case, that Fox News has only entrenched itself further into the world of right-wing conspiracy theories and fascistic rhetoric. If there's one theme that has really emerged from Dominion's court filings, it's this: The Fox business model depends entirely on propping up the flattering lies that Trump and his followers tell about themselves. As Murdoch said in an email to Ryan, the network is "scared to lose viewers." Keeping those viewers means saying all the false things those GOP voters want to hear. 

If anything, the pressure on the network to spin falsehoods has only grown more intense. When Republican voters are exposed to mainstream media, they are regularly reminded of what an embarrassment they are to the nation. From the Capitol rioters getting convicted to Trump's incessant whining to Georgia's Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's latest crazy antics, the reality-based world's view of Republicans is, accurately, one of a bunch of fascist nuts. But Fox News is right there to stroke their hair and soothe their egos, feeding them a steady stream of reassuring lies that it's everyone else who is crazy. That message, as Fox profit margins show, is irresistible to Trump voters. 

That's why everyone who isn't in the cult is reasonably alarmed over reports that current GOP Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy has granted access to the security footage of the Capitol riot to Tucker Carlson. It's not that anyone is worried there's footage that could somehow exonerate the insurrectionists. It's that it's beyond all doubt that Carlson's goal is to edit and distort the footage, or even just make false claims about it. Already, there's one accused insurrectionist who is exploiting the situation to delay his trial. There will likely be more who think, with McCarthy and Carlson on their side, they can muddy the waters enough to get away with attempting to overthrow the goverment. 

Carlson knows what his audience wants: Lies and conspiracy theories. As these Dominion filings show, he was extremely eager to give it to them then, and he clearly hasn't changed his tune one bit. And neither has Fox News, which has only grown more extreme in its propaganda since January 6. 

UPDATEIn a statement, Fox News said that despite "a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners ... this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution. ... Dominion has mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context, and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law."

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Dominion Donald Trump Fox News January 6 Rupert Murdoch Tucker Carlson