By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
One of life’s great ironies, in my humble opinion: Conservatives creating the world’s largest, richest, most powerful and brazen manure factory after complaining for decades that the mainstream/liberal media slants or ignores the truth.
Fox News, the crown jewel of the conservative media colossus that sprouted in the late 1980s with talk show firebrand Rush Limbaugh leading the way, was launched on October 7, 1996. It quickly became America’s most-watched cable news network (prime-time audience 2.2 million) with the sidesplitting slogan “Fair and Balanced.”
Now, all media outlets regardless of their format and political leanings are biased to a greater or lesser degree. Perception, point of view and priorities are baked into anything we write or discuss. It’s no secret that audiences are carefully monitored for what attracts their interest as well as subscription and advertising dollars. This is a business, after all.
Right-wing media has reliably presented its side of stories and issues while conveniently omitting rather significant facts or developments that undermine its preferred narratives. It also greatly embellishes the cases it hopes to make. The January 6 insurrection is one example. But if the recent defamation lawsuit settlement between Fox and Dominion Voting Systems underscored anything, it’s that conservatives have zealously embraced the lucrative, politically expedient wonders of bull crap and will not pay any significant price for doing so while wreaking havoc on America’s democracy.
The “gotcha at last!” moment that many people had long hoped for did not materialize with the settlement on April 18. There will be no squirming on the stand for star commentators Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. No on-air apologies. There has been barely a mention on Fox or in Chairman/CEO Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post newspaper. Dominion got half of the $1.6 billion it sought after Fox persistently and willfully spread bogus claims that Dominion machines had rigged the 202o presidential election against Donald Trump.
For Fox, a company with $12 billion in annual revenue, $787.5 million is sofa change. And lest we forget, Murdoch’s personal fortune weighs in at a modest $17.4 billion. As long as Fox remains faithful to Trump’s base by giving it what it wants to hear (nary a discouraging but not necessarily true word about the MAGA cause), the dough will continue to flow, though there may be a crimp in the pipeline due to Carlson's sudden departure on April 24. However, these Fox viewers don’t sound too perturbed that their chosen media admittedly lies to them.
Even with more than a dozen other defamation suits pending, including one against Fox for $2.7 billion by voting machine company Smartmatic, conservative media will no sooner adopt journalistic ethics than Trump will see the inside of a prison. (House arrest at Mar-a-Lago is about as bad as it will get.) And Fox will continue to peddle cow pies. Heck, Alex Jones’ unconscionable Infowars website and talk show continue to spew despite his declaration of bankruptcy after being sued by the families of Sandy Hook school shooting victims tormented by his falsehoods about them.
Now that the GOP and its media allies have shed their last shreds of shame and conscience, all that is left for them to do is be more circumspect about what they say, especially in internal communications of the kind that left Fox with its trousers down after discoveries and court filings in the Dominion lawsuit.
The cold reality: The radical right knows full well that bald lies and blatant hypocrisy are useful tools for achieving its political agenda and keeping its base and media audience in thrall. It sees its battle against liberalism and progressivism as an all-out existential war, and all is fair in war, particularly deception such as Trump’s “fake electors” scheme to overturn the 2020 election.
Bushwah brings in the long green, too. "The problem is that we have an information ecosystem where it is profitable for some people to sell lies. And defamation law can only do so much about that," Lyrissa Lidsky, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, told NPR. "Partly, you've got to look at the supply side for this information. I think you have to look at the demand side. To what extent are we going out there and consuming false information willingly because it's more pleasurable to us than true information would be?"
If you’re in need of an irony supplement, consider that touchy right-wing politicians are now trying to weaken libel and defamation protections for media who dare run unflattering stories about them. That effort could easily come back to bite Fox and its ilk on its ample posterior, but as it is, suing is simple now for well-endowed entities.
"It's really pretty easy to bring a defamation action if you're rich and powerful,” Lidsky told NPR. “Any time you come in for sharp criticism and it's not necessarily easy to win, but you can inflict a lot of pain on another individual just by suing them. You have to be careful that defamation isn't used as a tool to suppress free speech and criticism, particularly criticism of government officials."
Some folks have hailed the Dominion settlement, saying it “solidified” a shared vision of national facts about the 2020 election. Don’t make me laugh, my lips are chapped. Trump and his followers are still spouting lies that the election was stolen and they will surely continue right through the next election. Not having to apologize or admit wrongdoing makes it easy for Fox to act like the settlement was no big deal and other right-wing media to portray it as that old standby, “fake news.”
This Golden Age of Gilded Hogwash won’t start winding down until Trump goes belly up. Even then, it’s unlikely to end because a shared reality with liberals is anathema for modern conservatives, and when bushels of money are to be made in something like manure, good luck getting rid of it. If you don’t believe me, consider narcotics, fossil fuels and firearms.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.