Headlines in early March 2023 suggested Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch had made a scathing confession. He had confirmed that some of his top journalists reported that the 2020 presidential election was a hoax — even though they knew they were propagating a lie.
It was an admission during pre-trial testimony in a libel lawsuit brought against Fox by a voting machine company that said it was slandered by the lie. For journalists and devotees alike, the confession should spell the end of the Fox News empire.
No. It didn’t.
Such a disgraceful demise seems inevitable when journalists – professionally trained truth collectors, employed by a news organization, an institution that exists to provide truthful information – choose not to.
That’s because a company calling itself a news organization doesn’t actually have to be – but it does have to be a company. Businesses exist primarily to make a profit and doing current news is not essential. Adam Serwer, reporting for The Atlantic Oceanwrote “sources at Fox said I shouldn’t think of it as a network per se, but as a profit machine.”
News companies or profit machines can hire anyone who falls off a turnip truck and label them as journalists because the job has no standardized requirements.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists “None” as requirements for work experience and on-the-job training for journalists, but indicates that a bachelor’s degree is typical. Accordingly, Fox News businessmen could choose to spread election lies and insist, as court documents show, that it made good business sense to do so because a large portion of their audience did not understand the factual truth on that subject. wanted to know.
These are some of the disturbing conclusions of Murdoch’s defense of his news company against a libel lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, the company implicated in Fox’s election fraud allegations. Fox essentially admits to publishing false information about Dominion, but maintains that it is nonetheless protected from liability. It is a defense based on the First Amendmentwhich protects freedom of the press so powerfully that it also protects the irresponsible use of that freedom.
There is lying… and there is slander
Murdoch’s confession was recorded in court documents and was revealed in a New York Times story published March 7, 2023. The story was about the $1.6 billion libel lawsuit filed against Fox News by Dominion, the company has repeatedly – and falsely – accused Fox journalists of manipulating the 2020 presidential election to ensure Donald Trump lost.
Internal Fox communications, reported by the New York Times, revealed that network journalists and their news executive bosses knew the 2020 election was not fraudulent, yet continued to allow lies about the election – told by hosts and their guests – were distributed to the public.
Dominion claimed that Fox’s audiences balked when its journalists truthfully reported that Trump had lost the election. Dominion’s lawyers claimed that Fox feared the public would change their allegiance to viewers to start the conservative news organizations Newsmax and One America News.
In a March 31, 2023 ruling, the judge hearing the case cited examples of Fox’s internal communications that showed how journalistic values were being displaced by the language and values of business. Among them was this quote attributed to a Fox Corporation board member: “When the ratings go down, revenues fall.” The judge also referred to it Dominion’s claim that Fox chose to publish the (false) statements to win back viewers.
Court documents show that Dominion’s lawyers asked Murdoch, “What should be the consequences if Fox News executives knowingly allow falsehoods to be broadcast?” Murdoch replied, “They should be reprimanded, maybe they should be removed.”
That response agrees principles widely touted by professional news organizations and based in the ethical practice of journalism. Although reporters and journalists differ in their definitions of what constitutes a news organization And who can claim to be a journalistthere is no doubt that reporting facts, or at least attempting to do so in good faith, is an indispensable mandate for both.
Still, Murdoch has not indicated his intention to massively punish Fox News employees who violated that ethical principle. Nor is he obliged to.
Even the Society of Professional Journalists, the nation main advocate for ethical journalism, rejects punishment for those who violate its principles. Among other things, the code of ethics says: “The code is completely voluntary. … It has no enforcement provisions or penalties for violations, and SPJ strongly discourages anyone from using it that way. The organization admits that news outlets can punish their own journalists. Since journalists and their employers can be considered as one entity, any disciplinary action is voluntary self-discipline. Neither journalists nor the news organizations they personify need to be truthful unless they want to be.
Lying to the press is unethical, but it doesn’t necessarily deprive liars of protection provided for by the First Amendment. There is one exception to this: the slanderous lie, one that damages the reputation of a person or organization. That’s why Fox News was sued.
Murdoch’s surprising statements came to light in the lawsuit as his lawyers searched for a so-calledSummary judgmentby the judge to decide the case without trial, to avoid the prospect of a jury trial. That move makes sense, given that some lawyers have found that juries rule against media defendants three out of four times.
According to the lawsummary proceedings are only available if the parties agree on the material facts of the case.
That meant Fox and Murdoch had to admit to Dominion’s most damning accusations, including confessing to broadcasting false statements and engaging in other unethical journalistic practices. Even with those shots, the Protection of the First Amendment could still give Fox a chance to win the lawsuit – especially if a jury didn’t hear the case.
Without reaching a trial or a verdict, the Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox News lawsuit has already yielded some troubling results. It has challenged the assumption of journalistic disciples that news organizations exist provide the public with truthful information about the most important issues in their civilian lives. It has shaken the believers of journalism who accept it good journalism is never bad for journalism.
Neither assumption is necessarily valid at Fox or anywhere else. Anyone can claim to be a journalist, regardless of their actual position. Any company can claim to be a news organization. Acting irresponsibly in either role is largely protected by the First Amendment and is therefore optional.
Ethics mandated by independent state bar associations and state medical boards have held professional lawyers and physicians legally accountable as a means of ensuring responsible behavior in their roles, which are considered essential to society. Journalism ethics, which are the ethics of news organizations, are entirely voluntary and can be overruled if they jeopardize profits.
But if the ethical violations are defamatory, a successful libel lawsuit can require accountability with financial costs — monetary damages.