Lights, Cameras, Ratings

The defamation suit by Dominion Voting Systems against Fox News is that rarest of beasts, a viable defamation suit against the media. Then again, it’s not as if Fox News personalities and management didn’t pave the way to overcoming the most brutal of tests, actual malice.

Soon after the election, informed observers at Fox (like those elsewhere) already knew that Trump had lost legitimately. But they chose to conceal this truth on the air, for fear that broadcasting it would anger the channel’s audience and lead to lower ratings:

[P]rominent [Fox] anchors like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Maria Bartiromo are evidently very aware that the public—or, more precisely, their public—doesn’t share their view of claims of massive fraud in the 2020 election made by former President Donald Trump and his allies like lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell….

Documents from a defamation lawsuit brought against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems, a voting machine manufacturer whose product was implicated in the fraud allegations, show the hosts fully understood that the theories pushed by Powell et al. were, in their words, “insane” ideas from an “idiot” and a “lying,” “complete nut.”

Still, they permitted—even welcomed—advocates of those theories on Fox airwaves because the audience liked it. As Carlson put it, “Our viewers are good people and they believe it,” though Carlson himself did not. Or, as Bartiromo agreed, “It’s easier to get good ratings when you give your audience something they want to hear,” and “a peaceful transition” between the Trump and Biden administrations was not what they wanted to hear. Or Hannity: “You don’t piss off the base.”

Rupert Murdoch, Executive Chairman of News Corp, which owns Fox, appears to have made a similar calculation. He and others at Fox feared that if the network told viewers the truth about the election, its audience would decamp, perhaps to other right-wing networks, such as Newsmax.

Some have complained that not enough has been “made” of this discovery, that the same people upon whom the MAGA believers relied to reinforce their certainty that “precious” had been wronged didn’t believe it at all, and in fact realized, as did every sentient being, that it was a baseless lie. And those same personalities upon whom their audience relied so long as they fed them the “news” they wanted to believe realized that their adoration, and more importantly, their ratings, depended of feeding their audience the lies they wanted to consume or lose them to the upstart, far more batshit crazy, Newsmax.

Whether that was because Newsmax was even more unprincipled or just deluded enough to believe the lies is unknown. What is known, because they said so, is that Fox wasn’t going to get outflanked by not spewing the lies that their audience demanded.

Audience capture on social media has long been a fairly obvious problem. People addicted to their likes and retwits, to amassing followers and gaining prominence when reporters call them to provide the pre-determined quotes needed to flesh out a story and spell their name right, has driven many to manufacture outrages out of thin air so they have something to say. What this means is that they may have started by telling the truth, but then persisted by feeding their fans “their truth” when the real truth no longer sufficed.

As Ilya Somin has long noted, well before Trump was more than a goofy joke or realized he had accumulated followers dumb enough to believe anything, was the inverse relationship between what an audience wants to hear and what they will believe.

Republicans’ reaction to Trump’s lies about the 2020 election and to some other recent events highlight the problem of right-wing voters susceptibility to myths and conspiracy theories that reinforce their preexisting views. But left-wingers are also prone to the same dynamic. Social science research finds that bias in evaluation of political information is roughly comparable across the political spectrum. Both right and left are relatively more willing to believe misinformation that confirms their priors. Examples that primarily appeal  to the left include 9/11 “trutherism” (discussed in Chapter 3 of my book Democracy and Public Ignorance), and claims that GMO foods should be banned or because they are supposedly more dangerous than “natural” ones.

But why then, if such Fox News personalities as Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity or the one-time “Money Honey,” Maria Bartiromo, had established their bona fides as trusted sources of reliable news, did they not use that trust and reliability to provide their audience with facts, the very facts they openly conceded among themselves, rather than broadcast the lies their audience preferred?

But the central role of viewer demand in this episode does suggest that Fox and other purveyors of misinformation are less powerful than often thought. Such influence as they have arises primarily because many people have strong preexisting prejudices that lead them to believe certain types of lies. If Fox refuses to tell them what they want to hear, they might turn to someone else who will.

The right blames media like CNN and MSNBC for spinning news that the left prefers to consume, while the left says the same, if not worse, about Fox. Curious how the audience can see so clearly the other tribes’ faults while steadfastly denying the same when it comes to themselves. But the question that remains is whether the fault lies with Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow, or with the audience that will only tune in if they are fed the news they want to hear.

And if these personalities are providing entertainment, captured by their audience, rather than news, defined as objectively factual information whether it supports or undermines any particular political perspective, is there any hope of a nation surviving without sharing a mutually agreed-upon set of facts? Or if the news can’t provide us with a shared reality, where can we find it?

Among other things, it suggests we are unlikely to make much progress by trying to curb specific sources of misinformation, whether it be a social media platform like Twitter, or a network like Fox. Rather, we should seek structural solutions that reduce political polarization and shift decision-making to formats where people have better incentives to curb their prejudices and seek out the truth.

It’s unclear what Ilya is proposing here, but is there an alternative to a free press that would somehow be trustworthy to inform us of “the truth”?


3 thoughts on “Lights, Cameras, Ratings

  1. Pedantic Grammar Police

    There’s a short way to say “structural solutions that reduce political polarization.”

    Ministry of Truth

  2. B. McLeod

    That shared reality thing has been gone for years. Everybody has their own “facts” and “truths” now.

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