What Makes It Journalism
Commentary by Steven A. Smith
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It is really quite simple.
We tell people what we know when we know it, without fear or favor.
That’s it. The fundamental journalistic value.
Information that reflects that value is journalism. Information that does not is something else – advertising, public relations, propaganda.
In defining journalism and separating it from other forms of information, it is easy to get lost in the weeds.
Is it sufficient to say journalists tell the truth? That is overly simplistic. What truth? Whose truth?
The Discernable Truth
Journalists are expected to tell the truth insofar as the truth can be discerned. But truth can be elusive. Merriam Webster defines truth in part as “a transcendent fundamental or spiritual reality. [A] judgment, proposition, or idea that is true or accepted as true. [T]he body of true statements and propositions.”
It is better to suggest journalists should seek facts rather than that elusive truth, undefinable truth. Of course, no journalist can report all the facts in any given story. There is selection in reporting. We call that editing.
Nevertheless, what is reported should be factual. In serving the public, journalists report the facts they know when they know them, without fear or favor.
That is the measure.
And by that measure, Fox News is not a journalistic enterprise.
Most people to the left of center have always believed that to be the case. But now there are facts to back the perception and those facts may cost the right-wing propaganda network a billion dollars.
The Case of Dominion Voting Systems
Dominion Voting Systems, a Canadian company that builds voting machines used all over the U.S. to count election ballots, is suing Fox for $1.3 billion. During the 2020 election, the tabulators were used in 28 states, including Georgia.
Following that election, the Trumpist nutjobs perpetrating mythological election fraud claims turned their lunacy on Dominion, particularly its role in Georgia where Joe Biden carried the state. Conspiracy theories suggested the company was controlled by Venezuela and other foreign powers, that the machine software could be hacked easily, and that the company had deliberately helped steal the election from Donald Trump because it was controlled by leftist fanatics. Many of the absurdly false allegations grew out of QAnon posts.
Publicly, the accusations came from Trump insiders, including the deranged lawyer Sidney Powell, the when-did-he-lose-his-mind Rudy Giuliani and the My Pillow wackaloon Mike Lindell.
In the weeks following the election, Dominion and its executives filed defamation lawsuits against some of those worst purveyors of election-theft garbage. But the most significant case filed in early 2021 is that $1.3 billion defamation suit against Fox.
Fox Knowingly Perpetuated Lies
Fox “reporters,” talkers and commentators reinforced the fraud accusations without a shred of proof. They hosted the worst of the fraud proponents on their shows, over and over. And we now know that all along, Fox staffers and executives knew the accusations were false and that they were contributing to the spread of dangerous lies.
The Dominion suit has survived several early challenges from Fox and is scheduled to go to trial in April, though delays are possible, even likely.
Plaintiffs rarely prevail in civil defamation cases against media organizations. First Amendment protections generally insulate news organizations, even the worst, from civil liability. To win its case, Dominion must show through a preponderance of the evidence (but not beyond a reasonable doubt) that Fox knowingly reported false information and that Dominion suffered damage, particularly financial damage. But the higher hurdle for plaintiffs is showing Fox reported false and damaging information with deliberate malice, intending to do harm.
That is a high bar for defamation plaintiffs to climb. But in the last few weeks, Fox has made that climb far easier through its own astonishing admissions in publicly released depositions and internal emails.
The Proof of Fox’s Complicity in ‘The Big Lie’
There is not enough room here to detail all the damaging information that has been released. The New York Times, among others, has done a good job. What we do know is that the network’s most extreme commentators, such as Tucker Carlson and Lou Dobbs, reinforced the fraud allegations and hosted its most deranged proponents while writing internally that the accusations were false and dangerous. We do know that Rupert Murdoch, the man behind Fox, was more worried about audience and profits than facts. He even pressured on-air talent directly to be kinder to the defeated Trump while writing internally that Trump was perpetrating dangerous lies.
In a deposition released last week, Murdoch said he wished he had done more to move the network away from false election fraud claims.
This is damning stuff, and plaintiffs’ attorneys are sure to present it as evidence of Fox malice. Of course, a judge and jury may see it otherwise. Legal experts disagree. For many of us, it would bring immense satisfaction to see Fox brought down by an enormous jury verdict. But even if that does not happen, it is clear now to anyone who cares to look that any pretense to journalism at Fox is hogwash.
Fox News Is a Danger to Democracy
The network reports were not factual, and staff and executives knew that. The reports were a danger to American democracy and executives knew that. They desired only to keep an audience that was leaving for more extreme right-wing propaganda machines, so they carried on their pro-Trump, pro-lie campaign.
The network did not report the facts they knew when they knew them without fear or favor. They created their own false “facts.” Knew they were false. Now, Fox reporters have been told to not report the Dominion story – not a word. The Fox network’s perverted version of reporting can never be called journalism.
Of course, there is another fact at work here, reflected in survey after survey. None of this will matter to the tens of millions of Americans who believe Fox News is news. The network has trained its loyalists to believe that the rest of the news media universe is biased against them, that it spreads false information and fake news of its own.
They will not believe what the Dominion suit is telling the rest of us.
As is the case with so much of what transpires in the Trump era, all this noise likely will not matter. Fox has the deepest pockets of any “news” network and can likely survive an adverse judgment should such a judgment be affirmed after years of appeals.
So, nothing really changes.
And now we have the facts to prove it.
Editor’s Note: More internal Fox News emails produced for the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit were
released Tuesday night. Included are rather remarkable communications from Tucker Carlson and
Rupert Murdoch, both expressing hate for former President Trump. Here is The New York Times report.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020. His columns reflect his progressive political views. Smith was raised in a Jewish home and is culturally Jewish. However, he considers himself an atheist, which is reflected in his writing. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon. Smith currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.