Opinion: Looking for reason in all the wrong places

File photo/Dina Litovsky/The New York Times / The News Corp. building, which houses the headquarters of Fox News, is seen in midtown Manhattan on Jan. 16, 2021.
File photo/Dina Litovsky/The New York Times / The News Corp. building, which houses the headquarters of Fox News, is seen in midtown Manhattan on Jan. 16, 2021.

Audience research done by Fox News might be the most sophisticated data-wrangling operation on the planet, but you can be justifiably skeptical that it can separate its viewers into reasonable and unreasonable.

Or that it even cares to.

But I'm introducing this particular MAGA-world distinction because it is again screamingly evident that when Fox News gets itself backed into a legal corner, someone suddenly identifies a part of its audience that it otherwise earnestly ignores -- the "reasonable" part.

Now that it might be on the hook for at least $1.6 billion in damages to Dominion Voting Systems, whose machines it demonized for countless news cycles in the weeks after Donald Trump lost the 2020 election, Fox is again calling on the Reasonables to swoop to its rescue.

"It is plain as day that any reasonable viewer would understand," Fox's lawyers argued in a discovery brief, "that Fox News was covering and commenting on allegations about Dominion, not reporting that the allegations were true."

Plain as day, is it?

Flashback for a minute to September of 2020, when Fox commentator Tucker Carlson plunged the network into the soup over statements he made about Karen McDougal, one of Trump's multiple alleged extramarital entanglements. In the slander lawsuit that followed, Fox's own lawyers argued that the "general tenor" of Carlson's show should inform his viewers that the host is not "stating actual facts" about the topics at hand, but is instead engaging in "exaggeration" and "non-literal commentary."

And the judge in the case agreed, writing: "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."

You don't need a law degree to disambiguate the judge's opinion. It translates as "Look, Tucker is a clown, and reasonable people can be entertained by clowns."

If the Fox-is-a-clown-car defense has worked in the past, the company's defense against Dominion has most assuredly moved to the high wire.

So this time, with deposition testimony showing indisputably that Fox knew assertions by Trump sycophants about election fraud were, in the words of its own hosts and executives, "complete bullsh*t," "mind-blowingly nuts," and the bleatings of "f-ing lunatics," the company line is that Dominion is being duplicitous.

"Dominion has mischaracterized the record, cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context and spilled considerable ink on facts that are irrelevant under black-letter principles of defamation law," a Fox spokesperson said after the deposition was unsealed.

Anyone who's buying that argument would have to be unaware that Fox News remains the undisputed cherry-picking champion on the media landscape, and has been for decades. When ratings indicated that its viewers were enjoying visual evidence of unrest in the streets of American's left-leaning cities in 2020, for example, Fox did what Fox does.

Here it is, explained in the pages of Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker's book "I Alone Can Fix It": "Fox found that its reports and commentaries about unrest in Seattle and elsewhere drew sizable attention, especially when paired with ominous images of burning cars and looting rioters. On June 12 (2020), Fox's home page featured an image of a man carrying an assault rifle in front of a Seattle storefront with shattered glass. But the picture had been digitally altered by splicing together multiple photographic images and putting the man with the rifle -- a volunteer working security, in fact -- in front of a looted store."

Another story about the unrest in Seattle "carried the headline 'Crazy Town,' and showed a man running through a street with a car on fire behind him. The image was in fact from a different city, Minneapolis, and had been taken May 30. When contacted by journalists about the altered or misplaced images, Fox removed them."

But this week, no one needs to plow through the relevant texts to understand that Fox will do anything to keep the attention of its MAGA wing audience, including lie to them, because thanks to Dominion, Rupert Murdoch is on record saying it himself.

"In fact, you are now aware that Fox endorsed this false notion of a stolen election?" the CEO was asked by Dominion lawyers.

Murdoch dodged that Fox, as an entity, did not, but that its hosts did, a distinction without a difference. Its hosts certainly did.

Maria Bartiromo?

"Yes," said Murdoch. "C'mon."

Jeanine Pirro?

"I think so."

Lou Dobbs?

"Oh, a lot."

Sean Hannity?

"A bit?"

Yeah, a bit.

So they knew Trump was bluffing and they knew Rudy Giuliani was making things up and they knew Sidney Powell was lying and they knew Dominion execs were getting death threats, but they continued to make their gigantic platform available to shameless nut jobs so that their MAGA audience would not abandon them.

Asked in deposition if he could have stopped it, Murdoch said flatly: "I could have, but I didn't."

So finally, on Jan. 6, 2021, thousands of rioters entered the Capitol, people were killed, democracy went down for the count, and Trump watched it all on Fox News. What is the proper penalty, the proper judgment, for Fox's role in all of that?

The hopeful among us will say that's not the point. The point is to change the national conversation.

Laurence Tribe, legal scholar, talking on cable news the other night, said the most important thing that can come out of all this is resurrecting belief in the truth.

Well I'm for that; I just find the prospect unreasonable.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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