Here's the real lesson of the Fox News trial: It's time to break up Big Media

Of course Dominion was out for a payday — we can't expect capitalism to bring down Fox News and save democracy

By Brian Karem


Published April 20, 2023 9:32AM (EDT)

Participants seen holding a banner outside Fox News HQ. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Participants seen holding a banner outside Fox News HQ. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

When greed is the only thing that motivates you, disaster usually awaits.

Just ask Fox News.

Rupert Murdoch and the executives at that network found that out the hard way when they decided to broadcast lies about Dominion voting machines. It cost them to the tune of $787 million this week, after Dominion's defamation suit was settled out of court at the 11th hour.

The American people found that out too when the executives at Dominion Voting Systems decided to settle for the hefty payout rather than take Fox to trial and air all the network's dirty laundry in public. 

Believe me, there's still a healthy amount of train-spotting going on at Fox. From Murdoch through Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and many others, evidence showed that Fox executives and anchors knew they were broadcasting lies and repeatedly insulted the network's audience. Fox on Tuesday acknowledged the court's rulings "finding certain claims about Dominion to be false." But the network won't have to admit on-air that it spread election lies, a Dominion representative told CNN. 

Dominion's executives also learned something about the cost of greed when internet trolls and late-night talk show hosts started criticizing them for settling with Fox.

For many people watching this trial unfold, it was never about the money. It was about exposing Fox for its lies — perhaps even to those who worship the network's coverage as if it were gospel. So much for that.

It's the largest defamation lawsuit settlement in history, but for those who wanted to hold Fox accountable, it was a bitter pill to swallow. "It would have been nice to see them dragged into court and embarrassed for all of their lies," a congressman confided to me over a morning coffee. I couldn't agree more, but I don't think that will happen. I don't think it would matter if it did. 

Those who worship Fox will keep on doing so no matter what the facts show. They believe in the "alternative facts" disseminated within the Fox informational silo and happily spew hatred at those who don't hold Fox in such high esteem. Pointing out that Fox obviously doesn't care about its audience only serves to fill the network's acolytes with even more resolve. "They tell the truth. You can't handle the truth," I've heard Fox fans say, giving their best and worst impressions of Jack Nicholson. 

Maybe it's just a short attention span.

As if on cue, my coffee companion asked if I remembered the crew from "Ted Lasso" visiting the Brady briefing room a few short weeks ago. I said I did, of course. Then I was asked if I thought they were dropping a hint about season four when actor James Lance, appearing as a journalist from the show, was called on in the briefing room and asked a question about Kansas City as a possible World Cup site. "Isn't that Jason Sudeikis' hometown? I wonder if season four will take place in Kansas City." 

I was still thinking about Fox News, so I  hadn't given "Ted Lasso" much, if any, thought. "You know, I think that's where the series is going," I was told. I literally did a double take. It would have been a spit-take, but I'd already swallowed my coffee.

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With all that's going on in the world, and given how our conversation began, I wasn't prepared for speculation on the future of a fictional TV show. What's next? What's wrong with "Mandalorian" season three?

But, that my friends, is the world of 2023. It is increasingly divisive and fueled by angst. What's left to discuss safely but friendly fiction? The news, especially when delivered by Fox News, is too aggravating to address if you are cogent and capable of rational thought.

I'd rather talk about anything else. I'd like to talk about the debt ceiling, the need to pay teachers more and congressmen less. I'd love to talk about the war in Ukraine, Jim Jordan's ill-fated trek to New York to try and embarrass Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, maybe even the over/under on whether Marjorie Taylor Greene and George Santos are on the same medication, before I'd talk about "Ted Lasso." Not that I dislike the show — that's not my point.

All the distraction and disinformation spewed onto the desiccated landscape of journalism by Fox News has helped lead America into our current dystopia. There is no other way to look at it

My point is that all the distraction and disinformation spewed onto the desiccated landscape of journalism by Fox News has helped lead us into our current dystopia. There is no other way to look at it. The country is overwhelmed with violence and hatred. A teenager gets shot in the head because he knocked on the wrong door. A cheerleader gets shot getting into the wrong car. Mass shootings happen so often you can barely digest the details from the last one before the next one occurs and  dominates the media landscape for a day or two, often inaccurately portrayed and seldom discussed in any depth. Why? Because American journalism is driven by capitalism. It needs the money and will bend any issue to suit the preconceived notions of its audience. 

As Don Henley once put it, the people love dirty laundry.

Fox is merely the worst of the sinners. 

In March 1969, Canadian philosopher and media theory expert Marshall McLuhan, in an interview with Playboy magazine, no less, warned us about the "numbing" sense that instantaneous transmission of information brings to our culture. "In the past, the effects of media were experienced more gradually, allowing the individual and society to absorb and cushion their impact to some degree," he said. "If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves."

McLuhan said societies have always been shaped "more by the nature of the media ... than by the content of the communications." That was 1969 and Fox News wasn't even a nightmare in Rupert Murdoch's tortured mind yet. Social media and the internet were years away.

But it is Fox News, which more resembles a WWE match each night, and is one of the largest providers of information on the planet, that has proven McLuhan right. The medium is the message. Fox claimed to its viewers after settling the suit with Dominion that it would continue to dedicate itself to the truth — and the Fox sheep bleated with approval.

In other words, when Fox personalities preach for truth, justice and the American way, even as their favorite politicians call for banning books and the use of the word "gay," or come down hard on Dr. Frank N.  Furter and drag shows, in a culture where we spout the worst racist, misogynistic tropes while handing out cheap firearms and bullets in the name of God — well, we know plenty of people will gladly continue buying the nonsense.

The fight for gun control began in earnest in 1964, not long after Lee Harvey Oswald used a rifle he had purchased by mail from Chicago to assassinate John F. Kennedy in Dallas. It picked up speed after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X. But as Sen. Joseph Tydings told us in an essay written for the same March1969 issue of Playboy that featured the McLuhan interview, the NRA had somehow found an "Alice in Wonderland" defense for gun ownership in the Second Amendment. All constitutional scholars, the attorney general and even the Supreme Court in 1969 agreed that "there is no constitutional impediment to firearms-crime-control legislation. Indeed, they agree, the Constitution refers to the public's collective right to a citizen militia or a National Guard." 

Guiding the fight in 1969, as now, to keep guns cheap and plentiful was the NRA, which foiled gun legislation 54 years ago with "a grass-roots political vendetta that far outlast the spontaneous expression of public concern," Tydings said, using media, advertising and lobbying to put pressure on Congress.

Today, with its right-wing friends embedded at Fox and other, smaller networks, the NRA has an easier time of it than ever before, even as the deaths mount. According to polls In 1969, 80 percent of the public supported gun control and we still couldn't stop the flow of weapons. In 2023, the AP reports that 71 percent of Americans still favor stricter gun laws, but you wouldn't know that if you watch Fox.

Today the leading cause of death among children is gun violence. More people have died of gun violence in this country than in all of our wars combined. But turn on Fox News and watch how the personalities drum up support for guns, belittle the opposition and appeal to fear and hate. 

Because of today's deranged media landscape, millions of white people believe that the scales of justice have been tipped against them. They believe their racism and misogyny are justified and that people of color, women and the LGBTQ community seek angry retribution against "God-fearing white people." 

Fox News plays to this fear and does whatever it can to make sure people watch this deadly make-believe circus sideshow night after night. It's the Fox revenue stream.

The Dominion case exposed the dark side of Fox's revenue stream and showed, without a doubt, that today's media are one of the greatest problems we face today. 

McLuhan argued more than 50 years ago that we would be enslaved by "new media" if we couldn't adapt to it. Here we are in 2023, bound together in the blood of the dead, the lies of the living and the constant barrage of fiction parading as fact on Fox News. 

What is left to do? 

Fox slipped the noose this week and while that cost Murdoch a boat-load of money, there is little reason to believe this will force any substantial changes of habit at his network. 

"Fox has admitted to telling lies about Dominion," Dominion CEO John Poulos said. "Truthful reporting in the media is essential to our democracy."

It's beyond time to remove greed from the media equation, bust up the monopolies and reintroduce the fairness doctrine. That's how to make America great again.

He's right, but transparency is of vital importance. Dominion's suit, had it proceeded to trial, would potentially have embarrassed Murdoch much more than losing gobs of sweaty cash. It would have also shone light on the ethically challenged actions  of high-profile personalities at the network, and could have led to real change. That did not happen, and the nation is poorer because of it — while Dominion is a lot richer.

The audience suffered.

America suffered.

It is beyond time to remove greed from the media equation. Bust up the media monopolies, reintroduce the "fairness doctrine" and truly make our country stronger by better informing the masses through a diversity of media ownership and viewpoints.

Fifty-four years ago in an independent publication, Playboy, these issues were discussed in greater depth and with far more care than they get today. That is simply unacceptable.

And for the record, I don't think season four of "Ted Lasso" will take place in Kansas City. 

But I also don't care.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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Commentary Democracy Dominion Voting Systems Fox News Lawsuit Media Settlement