Let no one deny it: Rupert Murdoch is clever like a fox. He’s slyer than his adversaries in mainstream media. They still think in real-world terms. But Murdoch thinks in terms of the world that he’s created — the world of fake news, of lies that play because they carry the ring of vengeful mythology (life as a Charles Bronson film that never ends). The world that Fox News pretends is reality.
You could make a case that in recent weeks, Murdoch’s circus of happy-talk dystopian propaganda (otherwise known as any random half hour of Fox News) took a major hit. The release of documents subpoenaed during the Dominion Voting System’s $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News revealed something that was, or should be, profoundly embarrassing to the network: that there are moments when its star huckster, Tucker Carlson, actually tells the truth (at least in private).
The revelation that Carlson, along with a number of Fox News executives, peddled Donald Trump’s crackpot assertion that he won the 2020 election not because they believed it, but because they thought they had to go along with what their viewers wanted to hear, made the Fox team look like craven cowards. The lawsuit never made it to trial, but because those documents were leaked you could say the damage was done. And to keep the trial from happening, Murdoch had to cough up the mother of all defamation settlements: $787.5 million.
To you and me, that sounds like a lot of money. But in Murdoch Land there’s a phrase for a sum like that. It’s called chump change. And yes, in this case the chumps are all of us. The whole rest of the world. Or, at least, those of us who wanted to see this trial bring Rupert Murdoch and everything he stands for to task. What does Murdoch stand for? The power to run a “news” network that can make up bogus facts every day and pass them off as reality.
Murdoch isn’t just the dynastic owner of a media-entertainment empire. He’s the Wizard of Oz crossed with George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth. And what Murdoch accomplished by settling with Dominion is to prove that he could buy off justice — that he could effectively short-circuit the American legal system. For a moment, in the Carlson texts and emails, and in the revelation that Murdoch himself thought that Stop the Steal was “crazy,” we glimpsed the man behind the curtain. But then the curtain began to fall back into place, the damage effectively undone.
That’s because the world of media politics, merged with showbiz, has a very short memory. We all have short memories now, and the toxic ADD ecosphere created by Rupert Murdoch’s revolving door of overheated tabloid catnip is one reason why.
Here’s why he’s clever like a fox. The $787.5 million paid to settle the Dominion lawsuit is, to Murdoch, another digit on a ledger; it’s the cost of doing business. Yet what he bought for that money is priceless. With a kind of quintessential Murdochian double-think cunning, he neutralized the damage of all of us knowing that the stooges of Fox — notably Carlson, that smug bow-tied P.J. O’Rourke as reptilian ringleader of misinformation — are even bigger liars than we thought.
So what if we know? Fox fans don’t care; the MAGA faithful don’t care. The real news is that Fox brazenly lying on the air, and doing so with what seemed to soar over the legal bar of malicious intent, will not be branded a defamation, a libel, a crime. In a funny way, it will be…just another juicy gossip story. (Oh wow! Did you hear what Tucker Carlson said??!!)
There are no consequences for Fox, and so there is no precedent set. This means that Fox can just keep doing what it does, supporting Donald Trump’s lies (due to an extended mother-in-law visit, I’ve watched a lot of Fox News over the last month; the network is far more in the tank for Trump than most mainstream media outlets realize), selling its own facts when it suits the narrative, hewing to the heightened reality of Murdoch World.
There’s one ray of hope here. Fox News still faces a major defamation lawsuit from Smartmatic, a second maker of voting machines that, like Dominion, was smeared by Fox News broadcasts during the aftermath of the 2020 election. There are rumors that Smartmatic may be less willing to settle than Dominion was. And since a case this big is always, on some level, a matter of public relations, the executives at Smartmatic would be smart to look at how Dominion came off after the company’s settlement with Murdoch. The images of the attorneys who represent Dominion exiting the New Castle County Courthouse in Wilmington, Del., flashing grins and thumbs up signs, were (in my opinion) not a good look. It made the whole thing look like a payday, rather than what it should have been: an exercise in justice.
Let’s repeat: Defamation is a crime. It’s one that, if you commit, you should be branded with; it’s not one that you should get away with. But the ultimate legal standard for libel is whether it passes the truth test (if you can prove in court that something is true, by legal definition it can’t be libelous), and what Rupert Murdoch and Fox News stand for, every day, is an assault on truth. Whether or not they’re guilty in court, they’re libeling reality. This settlement, at heart, is a promise that they’ll continue to do so.
By Owne Gleiberman / Variety