Fox News takes the hits, but its audience looks resilient

Fox News’s reputation as a serious news source is being strained by the drip-drip of leaked texts and emails from a massive defamation lawsuit it is facing from Dominion Voting Systems.  

Dominion is seeking $1.6 billion in damages as part of an ongoing legal battle that neither side has shown any interest publicly in settling.  

Yet the stakes for Fox may be even higher than just the financial fallout.  

The network for years billed itself as a straight-news network, featuring opinion programming presented at night and select hours that caters to a conservative audience.  

The Dominion suit has put the spotlight on internal messages that raise serious questions about whether Fox hosts were more interested in telling their audience what it wanted to hear than in getting to the truth.  

Fox argues that the released messages have been cherry-picked and don’t reflect the whole story of what was going on at the network around the time of the election.   

But some experts and observers say the damage may already be done.  

“The revelations of the Dominion court filings have only verified what most journalists and non-Fox News viewers has known for years: lies, innuendos, false reporting in the most obvious and damaging circumstances have been par for the course,” said Joe Saltzman, a professor of journalism and communication director at the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a project of the Norman Lear Center. 

The question is whether any of this is really damaging to Fox in a meaningful way.

It does not appear that Fox viewers are being turned off by the Dominion lawsuit, which has continued to generate headlines even as Fox host Tucker Carlson this week came under fire for airing footage of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol in a way that suggested reaction to the incident had been overblown.

Carlson described the day in which supporters of former President Trump invaded the Capitol and forced the evacuation of lawmakers certifying Trump’s loss in the presidential election as “mostly peaceful chaos.” One woman was shot and killed that day, just steps from the House floor.

Nielsen Media Research figures show the network’s ratings have held steady through the string of recent negative headlines.

During the week of February 27 to March 5, for example, Fox marked 100 consecutive weeks as the top cable news network in total day with viewers in the advertiser-coveted 25-54 age demographic.  

Some observers say the base of viewers that watched Fox over the Trump years is sturdy enough to withstand the scandals and is unlikely to abandon the network because of the Dominion texts. 

“That audience that Fox has, which is very similar to the core base of Donald Trump, is still going to want information. They’re not going to switch to MSNBC or CNN,” said Philip Seib, professor emeritus of journalism and public diplomacy at the University of Southern California. 

“I suspect that as a commercial venture they will get through this,” he added. ”The overall message that Fox delivers is a political message that the constituency likes. That’s probably not going to change at any point.”

It’s unclear what will happen with the court case.

In its court filings, Dominion claims that Fox knowingly aired false claims related to its software and claims by Trump and his allies that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent.  

Communications between top hosts and executives at Fox made public through the lawsuit show them worrying about how their audience was reacting to Fox fact checking Trump’s claims. Some of the Fox hosts criticized their own reporters. 

“Please get her fired. Seriously. … What the f—? I’m actually shocked … It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke,” Tucker Carlson wrote to fellow prime-time host Sean Hannity of Fox reporter Jacqui Heinrich, who the network has since promoted to White House correspondent, after she fact checked a tweet from Trump promoting some of his claims about Dominion, according to one recent filing.  

Another filing this month from Dominion charges that Washington Bureau Chief Bryan Boughton called reporter Kristin Fisher, who had fact checked claims that Trump’s attorneys made at a Nov. 19, 2020, press conference, and told her that she needed to do a better job of “respecting our audience.” 

Fox has defended itself on First Amendment grounds, arguing it had a journalistic duty to cover Trump’s claims of voter fraud.  

“Dominion’s lawsuit has always been more about what will generate headlines than what can withstand legal and factual scrutiny, as illustrated by them now being forced to slash their fanciful damages demand by more than half a billion dollars after their own expert debunked its implausible claims,” the network said in its most recent statement about the case. “Their summary judgment motion took an extreme, unsupported view of defamation law that would prevent journalists from basic reporting and their efforts to publicly smear Fox for covering and commenting on allegations by a sitting President of the United States should be recognized for what it is: a blatant violation of the First Amendment.”  

Fox has also not suggested any fear that it could lose a portion of its audience over the Dominion suit.  

Lachlan Murdoch, the top executive at Fox Corp., gave Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott a vote of confidence in comments at a Morgan Stanley investor conference on Thursday, adding Dominion’s claim is “not about the law, and it’s not about journalism, and it’s really about politics.”  

UPDATED: 2:23 p.m.

Tags Dominion Voting Systems Fox News Jan. 6 attack Kevin McCarthy Tucker Carlson Tucker Carlson

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