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Fox News and its audience developed an addiction to lies, and they are now unable to break the habit

Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

He said they used to get on well, but in recent years his grandfather spent more and more time watching TV, specifically conservative cable channels: “He’s become staunchly rightwing, further down the rightwing rabbit hole as far as doing the election-denying conspiracy stuff and Covid conspiracies and disinformation, fully buying into the Fox News … kind of line.” The way he saw it, his grandfather had been immersed in “a 24-hour news cycle of fear and paranoia”.

Those words, disputed by another Lester grandchild, felt timely, coming as they did just as Fox News paid out a record $787.5m to settle a defamation suit for broadcasting lies about the 2020 US presidential election. The case had been brought by Dominion, a company that makes voting machines and which objected to Fox News airing, for instance, the wholly false claim that Dominion devices had deleted millions of votes for Donald Trump, replacing them with votes for Joe Biden – aided by an “algorithm to calculate the votes that they would need to flip”.

The last-minute deal came as a surprise to those who were looking forward to a blockbuster courtroom drama, but the bigger shock might be that Fox didn’t settle earlier. Given that the judge had already gone into caps-lock mode when he ruled in March that it “is CRYSTAL clear that none of the statements relating to Dominion about the 2020 election are true”, the chances of a Fox win were always dicey.

The settlement brought disappointment in what we might call the reality-based community. Plenty were licking their lips at the prospect of seeing Fox News’s bosses and biggest stars – the likes of Rupert Murdoch, Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity – forced to admit, on the stand and on camera, not only that the Trump claim of a stolen election was a lie but that they had always known it was a lie, even if they pretended otherwise on air.

That much had already been established by the thousands of private emails, texts and WhatsApp messages released through the pre-trial discovery process, which showed Fox executives and talent contemptuous of the very claims the network was amplifying, day after day. The “software shit is absurd,” Carlson said in one note, later writing that the source of that particular claim, a regular guest on the network, was “lying”.

An under-oath grilling of the Fox elite, culminating in a confession of guilt, would have been emotionally satisfying, even cathartic, for an America that has seen jail sentences for those who stormed Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021 but no real consequences for those who led them there: the politicians and propagandists who pushed the big lie so effectively that 63% of Republican voters still believe, even now, that Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election.

Instead, there will be no witness box humiliation, not even an apology. On the contrary, the network’s post-deal statement, declaring that “this settlement reflects Fox’s continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards”, committed the very abuse of the facts for which the company had just paid out three-quarters of a billion dollars.

Indeed, the brazenness of that statement suggests that, in the absence of a bruising, televised trial and a guilty verdict, it will be business as usual at Fox. Sure, they’ll probably be more careful with their WhatsApps from now on, and they’ll keep the target of any future falsehoods general (“liberals” or “the deep state”), rather than naming specific corporations, but otherwise they have little incentive to change their modus operandi. After all, Fox News is still America’s most watched cable news channel. The model still works. This week’s payout can be written off as simply the price of doing business.

It’s small comfort, but there’s no guarantee that even if the Dominion case had gone to trial, and Fox had lost, it would have changed the calculus much. For what has been revealed most starkly by this saga is the extent to which Fox News now lives in fear of the monster it has created. Running through those emails and texts is terror of an audience that demanded to be told what it wanted to hear – namely, that Democrats could only have beaten the mighty Trump by cheating. If Fox was not prepared to tell that soothing bedtime story, the Fox tribe was ready to turn to alternative rightwing networks – the likes of Newsmax and One America News – who would.

In an absorbing essay on the Dominion case in Prospect magazine, Matthew d’Ancona likens the Murdochs to the Sacklers of Purdue Pharma and Oxycontin, encouraging a section of the American public “to become addicted to the opioid of an unyielding conservatism that often strayed into conspiracy theories and outright lies”. We might fantasise about taking down the first and most powerful supplier, but it’s gone beyond that now. The problem that needs treating is the addiction.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

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