Saturday, June 3, 2023

Fox News Doesn’t Do Apologies

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Throughout the Trump era in American politics—which began in 2015 with that escalator ride and, 2020 election results notwithstanding, has hardly ended—there has been at most a thin line separating current events from cynical satire. Donald Trump’s own lies have been so prolific that it would be wrong to call even a transcript of his words a nonfictional document. His premeditated and endlessly repeated falsehoods about the “rigged” 2020 election, including a bizarre international conspiracy theory about Dominion voting machines, were so laughably untrue and yet still so effective that millions of Americans still believe Joe Biden is not the legitimate President.

In the redemptive Hallmark-movie version of America, the inevitable reckoning for this offense against democracy finally, if belatedly, began this week with the announcement that Fox News would pay an extraordinary seven hundred and eighty-seven million dollars to Dominion for its role in spreading those lies. This amounts to one of the largest-ever defamation settlements. “The truth matters. Lies have consequences,” Justin Nelson, a lawyer for Dominion, told reporters outside a Delaware courthouse, where the deal was announced on Tuesday, just as the trial in the case was about to begin. “Today represents a ringing endorsement for truth and for democracy.” Dominion’s C.E.O., John Poulos, added, “Throughout this process, we have sought accountability, and believe the evidence brought to light through this case underscores the consequences of spreading lies.”

But the Hallmark movie had a short run. Soon after Dominion’s sanctimony-oozing press conference, the Fox statement agreed to by Dominion as part of the settlement was released. Noble words about truth, justice, and the American way were nowhere to be found. A scene from the new season of “Succession,” HBO’s thinly fictionalized soap opera about the Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch and his fractious family, instead sprang to mind, one in which the congenitally unrepentant patriarch, Logan Roy, says to his renegade children, “I don’t do apologies—but, if it means so much to you, then sorry.” He never elaborates on what he is sorry for. He ends up seeming as unrepentant as ever.

Fox’s sorry-not-sorry settlement statement was just as vague. In fact, it never mentioned the 2020 election or Trump or much of anything at all. It contained neither an apology nor an admission of guilt, and the omission of both quickly infuriated those who had been looking to the lawsuit to provide some measure of accountability for the damage done by Trump’s post-election lies. Instead, the statement piously offered hope that Fox’s agreement to a settlement, by sparing the U.S. “the acrimony of a divisive trial, allows the country to move forward from these issues.”

Aside from a delicate nod to “certain claims about Dominion” that a judge ruled to be “false”—what falsehoods, Fox did not say—there was no way to tell what the network was referring to in its statement. There was no affirmative declaration from Fox that the 2020 election was not stolen, or that Dominion did not participate in a vast conspiracy to rig the election. Fox hosts were not required to make on-air corrections of the “kooky” and “shockingly reckless” falsities they had broadcast, as various Fox employees put it in private messages turned up by Dominion. The network did not even have to read the anodyne statement itself to Fox’s Trump-loving viewers, in whose name the falsehoods were promulgated so they could ignore the harsh truth that their man had lost the election. No one was fired. Rather, Fox insisted that the settlement reflected its “continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards.”

So much for accountability. At least not if you define it in anything other than purely mercenary terms. Murdoch turned out to be willing to pay a lot for the privilege of keeping his audience by lying to it. That’s something, of course. And the final bill could end up being a lot more than the nearly one billion dollars Fox is already on the hook for. Smartmatic, another voting-machine provider also smeared by the Trumpists, is seeking $2.7 billion from Fox in damages. Meanwhile, Trump himself and those who went on the air to spread fantastical stories about the election have paid no price at all.

I wish this were an academic argument over historical events that, while regrettable, at least were in the past. But that is not the case. Not yet, and maybe not for quite some time to come. With Trump as the front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, Fox has resumed coverage of him which often veers into the free-advertisement category. And Trump does not just repeat his lies about 2020; they are the foundation of his revenge-fuelled comeback campaign. In recent weeks, even as the embarrassing disclosures from Dominion’s lawsuit have become public, Trump’s campaign has gained support. “We need experienced and proven leadership back in the White House,” Representative Michael Waltz said in a statement endorsing Trump on Thursday. Waltz, one of several Florida members of Congress to back Trump this week over Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, specifically cited Trump’s ability to restore American “credibility.”

Lies alone perhaps cannot ruin a democracy, but lies plus impunity are another thing entirely. Where is the word that can fully capture the cynicism of endorsing a man who was arguably the biggest liar in the history of the American Presidency because of the credibility he would bring to the office?

“Truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues,”” as Hannah Arendt famously observed five decades ago, in the aftermath of the Pentagon Papers’ release. I’m sure there’s been someone who believed at every low moment in American history that it was a time uniquely rife with falsehood and deceptions. There’s little point in being naïve about it. The war on truth is the hardiest of perennials. It is routinely deployed with reckless abandon by those who have power and those who seek it.

But not all political lies are created equal. It is important to insist on that. Organized lying with an explicit goal in mind is a direct threat to democracy, as Arendt wrote about the dangerous affinity between politics and lying back in the Vietnam era. By historic standards, Trump’s attack on the legitimacy of the 2020 election is a big lie, on a par with those of other regime-defining untruths. This is not the everyday stuff of political malfeasance we are talking about.

On Monday, in a different courtroom thousands of miles away from the one where the Fox circus played out, the Russian dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza was convicted of high treason and sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for the crime of telling the truth, among other sins against Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship. In Russia today, it is illegal to call the country’s war in Ukraine a war. The Kremlin instead prefers the Orwellian “special military operation.” For this, Kara-Murza may spend the rest of his life in jail.

It is not irrelevant in this context to note that Russian propaganda about the war has been aired in the United States on Fox, by some of the same opinion hosts who broadcast the falsehoods about the 2020 election they knew to be not true. Trump himself has also often done so.

Before he was sentenced, Kara-Murza offered the court a remarkable testimonial about the connection between truth and freedom. He predicted a different future for Russia, “when the darkness over our country will dissipate. When black will be called black and white will be called white; when at the official level it will be recognized that two times two is still four; when a war will be called a war, and a usurper a usurper; and when those who kindled and unleashed this war, rather than those who tried to stop it, will be recognized as criminals.”

Democracy, whether in Russia or the West, can neither be built nor sustained on a foundation of lies. ♦

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