It is encouraging that there are consequences for reckless pushing of conspiracy theories to appease an audience. With all the bs that is spewed every single day, it was easy to assume that all Fox’s rhetoric about the 2020 election would go unpunished. Although Fox will end up paying around $590 million of the $787.50 million settlement thanks to a tax write-off, that kind of cash is nothing to sneeze at, and there are more lawsuits to come. Additionally, with the dismissal of top anchor Tucker Carlson, the network appears to be doing something to correct its ‘journalistic’ (I use the word extremely lightly with regard to the 2020 election) practices.
The settlement is enraging for a variety of factors. A $590 million payout will hardly stop Fox News, which hauls in $4.61 billion every quarter. That’s over 12 billion a year and over 1 billion each month. Within two weeks, Fox will have recouped its losses. Furthermore, the corporation doesn’t have to apologize.
“The Fox News 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.”
Let us take a moment to consider some of the most prominent news sources and social media platforms that have been created in the last 30 or so years, alongside the Internet, prior to dissecting Mr. Kalb’s larger point.
1988: The Rush Limbaugh Show
1995: Drudge Report
2005: The Huffington Post
2010: The Daily Caller
2011: Vox Media
2013: One America News Network
2014: The Intercept
That’s an incredible amount of new media in just over 30 years. They are of varied types: hard news, opinion and content aggregators. Some, like Fox News and MSNBC or the Huffington Post and the Daily Caller, are ideological opposites, churning out biased content that has become increasingly difficult to sift through.
2021: Truth Social
Just as some news sources are ideologically distinct, you have the same phenomenon in social media. Rumble was created as an alternative to YouTube and Parler was created as an alternative to Twitter and Facebook.
Both news sources and social media have been emerging at an unprecedented rate. Both have fragmented into left and right-leaning camps. Truth is subjective, rather than objective.
Add the fact that news and social media is easier to access than ever. As of 2021, smartphone ownership in the U.S. is 85%, a massive increase from 35% in 2011. As of 2019, 74% of U.S. adults had a desktop or laptop computer. You can find content from any political perspective in audio, visual or textual formats in a matter of second or minutes.
How can journalistic standards created in an era of newspaper, radio and early TV hold up to this assault? Sure, the expression “yellow journalism” originated in the 1890s due to the sensationalist nature of competing newspapers, but the speed and accessibility of modern devices and technologies puts newspapers to shame.
As Mr. Kalb alludes, as information and means to access it has become widely available, Americans ask the same questions that civilizations have asked since the era of Socrates and Plato, with regard to politics, the media and the truth:
What constitutes fair and balanced?
Where can citizens find unbiased news?
How do citizens separate fact and opinion when the media doesn’t do so?
How do we compel the media to tell the truth, or at least do their best to do so?
Dominion’s case against Fox News could have been the moment in which we discussed and reevaluated old norms, standards, laws and behaviors surrounding the news and truth. As Mr. Kalb notes further limits may be detrimental to a free press, but the discussion is important. The U.S. needs to determine new codes of conduct based upon the Information Age.
A greater financial penalty to Fox would be satisfying, but we missed out on the conversation to improve.
And that will hurt every American as “news” sources and social media platforms continue to spread lies and propaganda masquerading as truth.