If you had hoped that Fox News, stripped of its controversial star, Tucker Carlson, and obliged to pay $787.5 million to Dominion, would now be morphed into a shiny news organization, you’re in for a big disappointment. Fox did not make its billions by covering the news, though it did on occasion; it made them by catering to a large segment of disgruntled white, mostly Christian Americans, who feared “others” were surreptitiously seizing power in “their” country, and had to be stopped. Though things have begun to change in the suddenly embarrassed Fox universe, there is still little reason to believe Fox will soon be driven to emulate The New York Times.
Fox’s billionaire owner, Rupert Murdoch, felt the need to clean house, not to sell or abandon it. Faced with weeks of courtroom drama in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit, in which he would have had to testify and explain Fox’s dissemination of Trump-inspired lies, and Carlson would have had to justify his on-air manufacturing of fake conspiracies, Murdoch chose to swallow his pride, pay Dominion, cut Carlson, and try to persuade the rest of the world that Fox was turning a page in its history, and was moving on.
But based on my experience as someone who did commentaries for Fox for five years, from 2010 to 2015, quitting when Fox embraced rather than covered Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign, I believe Fox cannot change its spots with one or two dramatic changes in its leading personalities. Bye-bye Carlson, but Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and many others still carry the Fox flag, and they do so proudly.
Besides, because of its solid base of devoted viewers, who mindlessly accept Fox’s alternative universe of reality and dismiss any other version as anti-Trump gibberish, Fox’s financial base remains strong. For example: the $787.5 million Fox must now pay Dominion is roughly one-fifth of Fox’s estimated quarterly revenue of $4.6 billion.
When you’re talking Fox, you’re talking big money. Lying pays. Twisting reality pays. Inflaming America’s political wars, diminishing its global standing, intensifying the nation’s cultural and racial tensions — that too, Fox has found, pays a goodly sum.
Fox faces other challenging lawsuits. Smartmatic, another voting systems company, is suing Fox for $2.7 billion. Given the precedent set by the Dominion case, Fox may be obliged to cut another fat check. In addition, a Fox shareholder is suing Fox arguing that the news division wittingly broadcast false election claims, thus sabotaging a free election.
The Fox story, should it ever make its way into a courtroom, has the makings of history. It could help define the acceptable limits of journalistic expression at a time when many newsrooms are losing their way and social media is expanding its influence while breaking long established rules of the road. Of course it has also been argued that defining those limits might be injurious to a free press, which enjoys living with fewer guidelines.
The issue in any case would have been aired, discussed, and better understood. A trial could also help educate millions on the gross failings of Fox News and the advantages of a truly “fair and balanced” presentation of the news. And perhaps it could open the door to a possible change in our national dialogue about what’s good and bad for this troubled land.
Much will yet be learned about what’s behind Murdoch’s latest, eye-catching drama. Other moves may follow, other headlines created. But unless Murdoch changes his whole cast of characters and gives the new anchors a fresh, yet old-fashioned, operating mandate — such as try covering the news and not making it — a Fox without Tucker Carlson will still be featuring the same Hannity cast and the same Hannity script.
Marvin Kalb is the founding director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.