The Fox News Model: Satire With Consequences
Andy Borowitz’s opening paragraph of his article for The New Yorker reads, “In what the network described as ‘the bombshell of the century,’ Fox News Channel has obtained a damning video of President-elect Joe Biden talking to scientists.”
Two paragraphs later, Borowitz quotes Tucker Carlson, “If authentic, this video could be grounds for Biden’s impeachment…Talking to scientists, most legal scholars would agree, is a high crime under the United States Constitution.”
You read those quotes and have no doubt in your mind that they were attributed to Fox News and Tucker Carlson, but you’ve been fooled. Carlson never said those things — we think. Borowitz’s article is entirely satirical, but the fact that it is plausible that those things were said shows the nature of Fox News as a whole.
Carlson, the famed Fox News host, had the highest-rated cable news show in October, with an average audience of 5.35 million viewers. Despite October being the lead-up to the presidential election, Carlson regularly ranks among the top cable news shows, but over 4 million of those viewers in October were in the 55+ age range. He, like many hosts with their own show, are entertainers who give political commentary. He has a rabid fanbase who hang on his every word, but not many outside of that circle take him seriously.
Just ask his lawyers.
In a court case taken up by the Southern District of New York in September, Mcdougal v. Fox News Network, it was argued that a woman was defamed by Tucker Carlson on his broadcast. The woman claimed that Carlson accused her of extorting Donald Trump out of $150,000 in “exchange for her silence about an alleged affair between Ms. Mcdougal and President Trump.” Fox News Network filed a motion to dismiss the claim. In order to get Carlson out of the defamation lawsuit, his lawyers made the legal argument before the court depicting his show as political commentary that cannot be taken as fact.
US District Judge Mary Kay Vuskocil, appointed by Donald Trump, offered her opinion based on his lawyers’ defense.
One paragraph of her opinion states, “Fox persuasively argues…that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes.”
Another reads, “As Defendant notes, Mr. Carlson himself aims to ‘challenge political correctness and media bias.’” “This ‘general tenor’ of the show should then inform a viewer that he is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’”
The case against Carlson was dismissed on the legal grounds that Tucker Carlson’s statement cannot be taken as fact so there is no basis for defamation. It should be noted that defamation is difficult to prove in court, but the defense by the Fox News lawyers is the shining moment in the case.
The post-election period has been difficult for those in the Fox News world. The idea that the network would show any semblance of sidestepping wild conspiracies was too much for some viewers. Carlson asked former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell to present evidence that she had found widespread fraud in the election, but the Fox News host was subsequently derided by his viewers and Trump allies for questioning the validity of her claims. That, among other things such as calling Joe Biden President-elect, has angered many of the network’s viewers to the point that they have turned to a new right-wing media source — Newsmax.
But the “non-literal” commentary that Tucker Carlson engages in has had a real impact during the Covid-19 pandemic as the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review shows. Those who get their information from conservative sources, like Carlson, are much more likely to believe false information about the virus. On his show, he interviewed a Chinese virologist claiming she had evidence that the coronavirus was manmade in a lab, a claim that social media companies have since flagged as “false information.” He also pushed a debunked conspiracy about the Nashville mayor intentionally hiding a report stating a low number of cases linked bars and restaurants, as well as claiming back in July that the coronavirus “poses virtually zero threat” to children and adults.
Although Carlson has been deemed a near-satirical figure in court, his viewers hang on his every word and cannot differentiate between the information that he gives with evidence to back the claims, and those that don’t have any evidence at all. In other words, or well, the words of his lawyers, it is his audience’s fault for taking him seriously.