The competition for trust and credibility in the press are far from new. This struggle dates back to at least the late 1800s when the “yellow journalism” battle between moguls Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst dominated the New York media market. Both were fighting for circulation and ultimately, you know, profit.
There was a time, during my lifetime, that the evidence of conspiratorial lying by a media outlet would destroy that outlet. Readers and viewers, advertisers and investors, would flee the outlet once its credibility was obliterated. Once the media outlet no longer possesses the trust of the public, there would no longer be any value in it.
Pulitzer and Hearst both believed in this.
The First Amendment to the Constitution creates five American rights, or freedoms, that often go unquestioned in our culture. Not always, but often. Most of us grew up believing that freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and to petition the government are the primary freedoms Americans have. But the founders didn’t designate these freedoms because they were cute or profitable, they were designated because of their value to the nation.
The question of “value” is the primary one in the lawsuit of Dominion Voting Systems versus Fox News.
The Bill of Rights Institute writes, “The Founders saw press freedom as a way to both protect free republican government and to make sure the government promotes justice.” This was the value they saw that justifies protecting this singular business, the only one specifically protected, in our founding document.
The Big Lie
Many Americans quit thinking of Fox News as “the press” a long time ago. As evidence in the Dominion lawsuit has detailed, the channel has also quit thinking of itself as the press. For many years, the editorial functions of what once looked like a traditional news outlet, had been easily categorized first as leaning conservative, then as right wing, and now as the primary protectors of the MAGA movement.
Media critics and political scientists often give Rupert Murdoch, the founder and chairman of Fox Corporation, credit for creating the ecosystem where their loyal viewers exist. I doubt, however, that Murdoch originally planned for this grand creation, a viewership that gobbles up his channel’s content without challenging any of it, to ultimately enslave him.
That’s what the Dominion case is revealing: that Fox is now afraid to tell its viewers, its customers, its profitable ecosystem, the truth.
As Matthew Keys reported at TheDesk.net, the news that Murdoch and most of Fox’s top hosts knew that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that the voting fraud claims were fantastical lies, has not negatively impacted the channel’s ratings. There is no evidence it will. At least not yet. Though I remain hopeful.
The text messages and deposition testimony show that Fox personalities like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham worry more about the consequences of telling their viewers that “The Big Lie” actually is exactly what its name says it is. At least they did two years ago, and their ongoing coverage shows they still do.
Recently, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy made the controversial move to release all of the U.S. Capitol security video, approximately 44,000 hours of it, exclusively to Carlson. The stated reason was McCarthy’s desire for “transparency.” The strained use of it by Carlson on his show has been an attempt to show that the January 6 siege on the Capitol was peaceful, nonviolent, and generally not unusual at all. It’s a laughable conclusion of what any rational person can see as simply untrue.
But what is that strained theory’s value?
When asked if Carlson handled it right, U.S. Sen. Mike Braun, the junior senator from Indiana and gubernatorial candidate said this: “I think he did. I actually watched about half of that. And I think whenever you are pushing transparency, that is a hard argument to be against.”
This too is an example of someone enslaved to his “viewers,” or voters. Braun is counting on the relentless ecosystem that Murdoch created to provide him with the base of votes he needs to win the governor’s race in Indiana in 2024. In that statement, he confirmed that he is a Tucker Carlson viewer, just like the voters he is courting, and that he is also unwilling to state the obvious yet uncomfortable truth about 2020 and The Big Lie.
It often takes courage to tell the truth. That is the regular duty of the press. Truthtelling is the value the citizenry gets in exchange for the constitutional protections the press enjoys. Whenever that role in a media outlet effectively disappears, as in the Fox News example, those protections should disappear with it.
Michael Leppert is an author, educator and communication consultant in Indianapolis. He writes about government, politics and culture at MichaelLeppert.com. This commentary was originally published at indianacapitalchronicle.com. Send comments to [email protected]