Fox News falls for another hoax, as the Dominion defamation settlement pays off

The most surprising part of the "homeless veterans" hoax? Fox News admitted they were wrong

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published May 23, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Laura Ingraham, host of The Ingraham Angle on Fox News Channel (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Laura Ingraham, host of The Ingraham Angle on Fox News Channel (Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

On Friday night, Fox News' Laura Ingraham did something nearly unheard of on the propaganda-masquerading-as-news network: She admitted that a story Fox had been hyping was wrong.

For a week, Fox News and other right-wing outlets had been heavily hyping claims that "homeless veterans" were being forced out of a hotel in upstate New York to make room for Central American refugees. Due to diligent reporting from local reporters at the Mid Hudson News, however, the story quickly unraveled. The hotel denied the claims and had receipts to refute the right-wing narrative. By the end of the week, the Mid Hudson News had a group of homeless men ready to talk about how Sharon Toney-Finch, the source of this tale and the head of a veteran advocacy group, had recruited them to pretend they were the displaced veterans. The whole thing was a hoax

"Turns out the group behind the claim made it up," Ingraham said, in a rare moment of honesty. However, she swiftly returned to the comfier space of mendacity, saying, "We have no clue as to why anyone would do such a thing."

This, of course, is total nonsense. Ingraham knows exactly why someone would fake such a story: Because it works. Whether Toney-Finch's goals were money, fame, or politics, she appears to have correctly surmised that a surefire way to get wall-to-wall coverage in right-wing media is to roll out some B.S. story that validates the bigoted beliefs of their audience. Indeed, history shows that hoaxes and fake stories like this don't just routinely take off in right-wing media, but often gain enough momentum to launch into the mainstream media, giving the lies more traction and validation across the political spectrum. That's what happened with "Clinton's emails," a nothingburger story that nonetheless shaped voter opinions, because mainstream journalists kept asking then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to explain herself, without ever telling audiences there was nothing to explain. 

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The pattern plays out the same way again and again: Right-wing operatives claim to have a "whistleblower" or "undercover footage" or some other evidence of a "scandal." The right-wing media cover it breathlessly, and the mainstream media, afraid of being left behind, soon amplify the false story. Eventually, the lies get debunked, but only after the story has lodged into the public imagination. Typically, the debunkings are much quieter, as well, which means most Americans who heard the original hoax never hear the truth.

Eventually, the lies get debunked, but only after the story has lodged into the public imagination.

It's a strategy that was used to sell the Iraq War, by hyping false claims that Saddam Hussein was concealing weapons of mass destruction. "Benghazi". "Planned Parenthood sells fetal parts." Claims that the now-destroyed anti-poverty organization ACORN was covering up for sex traffickers. Same story over and over: Right wing hoaxes, fueled by mainstream coverage, spread rapidly. Even the Satanic panic of the 80s fits the mold. Stories of Satanic ritual abuse were first floated by deceptive conservative sources, only to flow into the mainstream press that didn't look too closely at people's false claims. The truth eventually comes out with these kinds of stories, but it's usually too late to stop the damage. 

However, there are some intriguing signs that the mainstream media is finally starting to learn skepticism, instead of simply rushing forward to give airtime to shadily sourced right-wing fairy tales. A few years ago, for instance, there was a good chance that CNN and NPR and the New York Times would have been right up there with Fox, publishing stories about these "homeless vets" allegations, only to issue much-quieter debunking stories days later. This time, however, mainstream outlets were careful not to take the bait, only covering the story once it was clear it wasn't true, and centering their coverage around the hoax itself, not the allegations. 

What's changed? Plenty.

For one thing, here has been increasing pressure on mainstream outlets to not do another "Clinton's emails." Due to Donald Trump's profligate lying, there's also a lot more public discussion about the nature of disinformation, making it all the more embarrassing for media outlets that succumb to the siren call to amplify it. But what has really made an impact is the defamation lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News, which resulted in a $787 million settlement earlier this spring. 

Who knows how permanent the lesson will be, but for now, there's little doubt that the settlement and the public court filings before it have destroyed Fox's longstanding but undeserved reputation as a "news" organization. Prior to the lawsuit, there was a general-but-false view that, while Fox is conservative, they aren't deliberate peddlers of disinformation. So when a story was published on Fox, it created not just permission for other outlets to treat it as credible, but pressure on them to cover it, lest they be accused of "bias" against conservatives. 

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Dominion's lawyers released a bunch of insider text messages and communications from Fox leadership, however, that proved beyond all doubt that the network knowingly spreads lies. Not only did the documents demonstrate Fox hosts and executives openly discussing how to amplify and validate Trump's election lies, there was even talk of punishing employees who dared tell the truth about who won the 2020 election. It made it impossible for the rest of the press to keep up the pretense that information on Fox is trustworthy.

Ironically, it was that very pretense that made it so easy for Fox to pump false stories into the mainstream media. That's likely why Ingraham felt the need to admit the "homeless veterans" story was a hoax. If Fox is ever going to regain its power to push misleading or even fake stories into the news again, they'll need to start convincing mainstream journalists they're a "real" news outlet. Offering a correction on-air, no matter how insincere, helps prop up the illusion that Fox is anything but the dishonest propaganda outlet it actually is. 

Will it work? On one hand, there's still a strong desire in the mainstream media to prove they're not "biased" by giving Fox News and Republicans the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, there's other signs that the Beltway press has generally become better at debunking Republican lies before giving them airtime.

For instance, both Rep. James Comer, R-Ky. and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, have been trying for over a year to use their House committee chairs to spread disinformation. They use all the usual propaganda techniques, such as false claims to have "whistleblowers" or reliance on untrustworthy sources. But rather than credulously quoting Republican claims without contextualizing them, the press has been doing a much better job of focusing coverage on the lack of credibility — or the lack of existence — of these supposed "witnesses". Jordan in particular seems frustrated that it's a lot harder that it used to be to get the press to parrot his lies uncritically. 

Unfortunately, disinformation has a lot more channels to go through than it used to. Obviously, social media is the biggest purveyor of GOP lies, helping outright nonsense spread faster than even Fox News could dream of. Plus, there's a number of alternative media bad actors, like Joe Rogan, who are only happy to do the "tell the big lie, and then quietly admit it wasn't true" game on topics like whether schools offer litter boxes to kids who "identify as cats." 

Still, it cannot be understated how important it is to have mainstream media validating right wing nonsense. It's why Trump was so eager to go on CNN to tell lies, even though Fox News has a much larger audience. The veneer of Beltway acceptance goes a long way towards reassuring people who want to buy into conspiracy theories that they aren't "crazy" or "fringe." There was a time when a preposterous story like the "homeless vets displaced by migrants" hoax could have exploded across mainstream media before anyone bothered to check if it was true. That the press turned its nose up to this right wing bait is a hopeful sign of progress.

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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