On Boston Public Radio, Angelo Carusone discusses the state of right-wing media following the Dominion filing

Carusone: “It’s a weird moment in right-wing media where they don’t have a clearly defined center of gravity.”

Angelo Carusone speaks with Boston Public Radio, 2/27/23

Audio file

Citation From the February 27. 2023, edition of GBH's Boston Public Radio

MARGERY EAGAN (HOST): But this Dominion lawsuit involving the Dominion voting machines, which were trashed over and over again during these what appear to be lies that the Fox hosts were saying about their belief that the election was stolen and that these machines were faulty. Plus the texts and emails, internal communications have been uncovered from the hosts, which seem to indicate that Dominion has a pretty good chance in what is usually a really uphill battle to win a lawsuit like this. What do you think?

ANGELO CARUSONE (MEDIA MATTERS PRESIDENT): I think that's right. And I think that – I'm glad these things are uphill battles, you know, and there's a really, really high standard for defamation or litigation against, you know, any kind of, you know, public commentary like this. I think it's good that there's a high standard. But in this case, you know, because there is a high standard, there's an overwhelming amount of information that's come out.

And yeah, when you look at it in total, it's pretty clear, you know, the standard really is actual malice. You have to know that there was harm. The things you were saying were not true and then you continued to say them anyway. And all along the process, one of the things that comes out is that Fox News knew – top to bottom that the executives knew, that Murdoch knew, that the hosts knew what they were saying wasn't true at all, but continued to say it because it was what their audience wanted to hear and also because it served their political interests.

And I'll just wrap by saying that there's this one part that came out of the firing of Rupert Murdoch, who's the chair of Fox, asked the president of Fox News about all this kerfuffle that's going on and to say, hey, you know, are we saying these things? We're doing these things. And she sent him back a research file with fifty examples of them pushing misinformation about the election of which a bunch of the Dominion claims were in there. It's like, wow, that's something we would produce, you know? It's dark.

JIM BRAUDE (HOST): You know, Go ahead. Jamie Raskin I think I got him right where during the one of the impeachment trials said, if this is not an impeachable offense, I don't know what is. I'll say the same about it. As you said from The New York Times versus Sullivan, actual malice is you do with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard or whether it was false or not. To paraphrase Jamie Raskin, if this is not defamation, then we should get rid of the defamation statutes. This is like a textbook case of knowing one thing and saying one thing in private and doing a one-eighty when you get on the television screen.

CARUSONE: No, completely. Yeah. I mean, and that's the other thing is that they didn't just were doing these things when they knew better. There's actually text messages which you guys are alluding to where Fox hosts were. We're actually talking about how much they didn't believe the very things that they were pushing. So there's another layer on top of this, which is that it isn't just that they were failing a standard. They put in a lot of their own personal impressions and reflections on it, which adds to the intensity of the defamation. They really were doing this.

BRAUDE: You know Angelio, one of the – Margery is just staying up at night praying or whatever she does that they lose this suit. I think many people are with her.

EAGAN: That's right.

BRAUDE: But one of the things that I also hope is that if they are to lose this suit, they being Fox News, that this has some sort of deterrent effect on similar behavior, because it is not only Fox News, there are a ton of these right-wing fact averse kinds of outlets now. Do you buy the notion this may have a deterrent effect on other similar deceitful efforts or no?

CARUSONE: It could. I mean, I think that it's a tough sell. I mean, I hope it does. And I think that there's a way that it could. You know, the Jones stuff has – was the first real shift in this, and it's a little bit different. But I mean, the defamation there sort of changed –

BRAUDE: As in Alex, we're talking, Alex Jones

CARUSONE: Alex Jones. That's right. Sorry. It's the same thing here. It's that, you know, I think that they would have to see, one, that there was consequences and, two, that Fox was actually hurt in some way, that it didn't actually end up with them being profitable. So I guess my short answer is it really depends on the next year because we will ultimately decide what happens here.

Fox is renewing all their cable contracts. If they are successful at renewing their contracts, not just renewing them, but what they're trying to do is get these really big increases. That's where most of their money comes from.

BRAUDE: Of course. Not the ads.

CARUSONE: You know, that's the dirty secret about Fox. They're really the only commercial media property that doesn't need a single commercial. In fact, they could have $0 in ad revenue and would still have a 90% profit margin. And if they're successful at increasing all these renewals and they don't have any real effect on their bottom line, even if they lose the case, it won't serve as the deterrent effect, because what it will tell other personalities is that: Dig in, respect your audience.

One of the things that Fox was pushing as a slogan throughout this whole thing is every time they were pushing nonsense, they said, Well, we have to respect our audience. And so I think the lesson could be the opposite, that if Fox is successful at commercializing what this serving in catering, commercializing these lies, they'll be affected. If not, but if they can't do that, it will have a deterrent effect. It will change, will ratchet down the temperature a little bit. And that's really all that matters, I think, when it comes to dealing with the right-wing media.

EAGAN: But if Dominion does loses, does lose rather. I think what it will say is to not just Fox but all these other outlets around the country, you can just – you can know you're telling a lie. You can know the sky is blue, go on the air and say the sky is red and cause considerable damage not just to Dominion, but to the whole – I mean, many people would argue that January 6 came about because of this nonstop drumbeat of the election having been stolen. So you can do that and get away with it. I mean.

CARUSONE: Yes. They've taken that lesson. There was some litigation in Florida a while back where Fox News was defending themselves against a bunch of defamation claims – it was in one of their state court filings, they had argued that no reasonable viewer of Fox News primetime would assume what they're hearing is true, that that was they were purely entertainment. And to your point, it did actually, you know, in right-wing media, which is largely what I listen to every day, that's like that is up there with the Bible for them. Because they reference that point as a sign of protection, that look at this, look how far they went, and ultimately they were protected. And I do think the stakes are high in that sense. I will say on the other end, covering of this information, I think could change the way the rest of the media engages with Fox. You know, we didn't see President Biden, which happened right before this came out, sit down with Fox News. You know, part of what happens with.

BRAUDE: For the Super Bowl, you're talking about. For the Super Bowl.

CARUSONE: That's significant and know Fox News is grandfathered in. Part of the reason there's less accountability is because they still get treated like a news outlet, even though they're in every way, in every meaningful interaction, much more like a political operation. So, you know, if others change their behavior around Fox, it's a lot harder for them to get to maintain that veneer of journalism, which people still respect in this country. There are limits to what you're willing to do when you think you're going after a journalistic outlet. You don't want to retaliate against journalism. And and that's the struggle, I think, you know, is that others have to change their behavior, too.

EAGAN: We're talking with Angelo Carusone. He's president of the nonprofit watchdog Media Matters for America, which is a great operation. But I wanted to ask you, too, you mentioned about how you spend your time in right-wing media. I think we make the mistake sometimes of thinking that Fox News, that's it. But, you know, as a caller once said to us a few months ago, if you drive through parts of Pennsylvania, all you can hear is a.m. radio with the same kind of craziness. I mean, so there's a huge echo chamber. Tell us about that.

CARUSONE: That's it. It's an echo chamber. That's what gives it its power. And, you know, up until recently, you know, I think people forget that for 25 years, Rush Limbaugh was the single largest get-out-the-vote operation in the country. But he was also the assignment editor for the very echo chamber that you talked about – because, you know, his fans literally call themselves Dittoheads. They would echo the thing you say on air that happened. So when Limbaugh would sort of be the ultimate referee, that was then amplified and echoed through much of the right-wing echo chamber, which is what gives them their power there, that repetition.

And the role that Fox has increasingly played is that they sort of function as in helping sort of if there's like a front page editor of a newspaper, they sort of pick what are the big things that we can rally around because they get the large political guests and that then gets reverb, you know, talk radio talks about the Fox News segments with those hosts that they you know, or those appearances. So the echo chamber is much more important than just a few of these outlets.

And to your just to put a bow on it, part of the reason we're having this very conversation in the first place about Dominion and Fox is precisely because of the dynamics of that echo chamber. You know, Fox News accepted the results of the election for a brief period of time. And then One America News and Newsmax two competitive news channels were out there nipping at their heels and Fox News on a dime – qe watched it in real-time – they went from accepting the results to then, on the following two weeks in November, doing 774 segments, undermining the election, including much of this Dominion coverage. So they were responding to the dynamics within this echo chamber so that they didn't lose their seat.

But that's it. And what I think is significant is that right now we're in this moment where while they're simultaneously more bloodthirsty, they don't actually have a Limbaugh. Tucker is sort of moving into that role. And I think you sort of see that played out most recently with this McCarthy news. But they don't actually have that center of gravity yet. And that echo chamber does have the potential to just sort of scatter and have lots of little different narratives where instead of it being an echo, it's a noise. And that means that they could be much weaker.

EAGAN: What about Limbaugh's replacement, Dan Bongino I think his name is I mean, he has millions of listeners. I believe.

CARUSONE: He does.

EAGAN: And Glenn Beck has got significant audience. I mean, this is when you look at the numbers, there are millions of people that are tuning in to these little, little bit of Fox imitators.

CARUSONE: It's true. The audience matters. Well, I think about the role that Limbaugh played and others, though. It's kind of like a herd of cows or any herd. You need a lead steer. The lead steer direct determines the direction of the herd. And if you have two steers that are fighting, the herd just kind of stands there and wanders. Maybe they break apart. You still have big cows, right? But you don't have a leader, you don't have a direction, you don't have a herd.

And Glenn Beck is not a lead steer. He had a great moment back in 2009 to 2010, but he doesn't drive coverage. He echoes. And that's the same with Dan Bongino. He is basically like the Drudge Report, but with a radio show.

EAGAN: Okay.

CARUSONE: Most of what he does is aggregation. He's talking about other people stuff. His audience matters in the sense that he can help saturate and repeat, but he is not a driver of news. He doesn't really determine where things go. And – Tucker does in large part right now. And Joe Rogan a little bit, even though he's not exactly part of the right-wing media, he has so much cultural impact that it's kind of felt.

But they're struggling in that way. And I'm not someone who just gets out there to own people because I – it's the truth. It's a fascinating moment in this right-wing media, and it's actually happening right at the same time. All these changes in that landscape are happening right when Fox News is at its very – not weakest. But they're walking a very fine line between Trump and DeSantis and in the primaries. And at the same time, what they can and can't say because of this litigation and navigating this tumult.

And so it's a weird moment in right-wing media where they don't have a clearly defined center of gravity. It'll probably end up being Tucker, but it is not clear yet, and that that really does have – and you see these things bubble up; like the McCarthy fight was sort of an offshoot of these factions kind of generate, you know, sort of going at it. But it is a really transformative period that will then determine what the next few decades actually look like. And this Dominion case is happening, you know, at especially a critical time.

BRAUDE: You know, being forced to watch and listen to right-wing media, I believe is defined as torture or under certain it or not.


BRAUDE: So speaking of Tucker Carlson and speaking of the Speaker McCarthy, I think everybody knows that he gave exclusive access to thousands and thousands of hours of January 6 footage, which is sort of ironic considering the guy who gave it to there's been saying it was a false-flag operation by the government. Here is Carlson speaking on Fox News about why he should have unrestricted access to that footage.


TUCKER CARLSON: Big picture, if you don't want another January six, if you want to avoid another riot like that, you'd want as much of the footage to come out as possible. Instead, our government has been using the information blackout it claims as necessary for national security in order to do what they usually do under the cover of classification law. And that's lie to us.


BRAUDE: How – does this worry you, this exclusive access given to Carlson and if it does –

CARUSONE: Yes, it's terrifying.

BRAUDE: How and why?

CARUSONE: It really does because we already have a keyhole view of what this will look like, because about a year or so ago, Tucker Carlson did a three-part documentary about January 6 called Patriot Purge, in which he basically argued that January 6 was a false flag operation, sort of a fake, put-up job either by Nancy Pelosi, Democrats in the media. But that somehow was all the FBI was involved, this is according to him, and that basically, it was a setup to crack down on conservatives and Trump supporters. And it was pretty devastating. I mean, falsely claiming things are false flag is a really extreme charge because it works up the most extreme people.

And he didn't really have anything to go on there. I mean, he had nothing – he had no raw material. He just had questions, innuendo, and a couple of extremist experts – people he identified as experts. In this case, he has a ton of raw footage that he can edit, selectively edit to validate to build the case that he started making about a year ago. And so essentially, it worries me for a few reasons. One, we're relitigating what happened on January 6, and we're doing it in a way that is not transparent. You know, they're calling it transparency, but it feels much more like a transaction than transparency. And I heard Dean Obeidallah, who's a radio host, say that way. And I thought that was so smart because that's what it feels like. It feels much more like transaction than transparency. So that's the first piece.

The second part is that it's specifically going to activate the very militias, militarized groups, militarized extremists that have sort of been waiting for the proof that it was a false flag operation. So, I think that even though it feels more stable right now and the environment has sort of ratcheted down, that cauldron of extremism, hate of violence is still simmering. And it doesn't mean that we should be scared about it all the time. But it has – it's still simmering. And Tucker is about to raise that temperature a lot so that it boils over and it's specifically designed to cater to the most extreme audience.

BRAUDE: Well, this is what your government wouldn't allow you to see. And I'm going to have it. So there it goes.

EAGAN: Angelo Carusone from Media Matters, I know you're not a psychologist, but I'm also curious about Tucker Carlson. You know, Tucker Carlson used to be on MSNBC. If you listen to his monologues, he's very good at what he does. I can see why people get sucked in by him. But as we know now from his text messages, he knew he was lying about the election – admitted it and did it anyway. So, I mean, what is the story with this guy? I mean, there's something.

BRAUDE: Marge, you're acting like it's operational. We used to work with a radio host who was paid more than any radio host in town. Do you believe he believed anything he said?

EAGAN: Are you talking about Bill O'Reilly?

BRAUDE: No, I'm not talking about Bill O'Reilly. I'm talking about –

EAGAN: Yeah, okay. Because Bill O'Reilly was a great interviewer. You may not like them. You do some very bad things, needless to say. But he was a very good interviewer. But I mean, this is so blatant because, as I said, it's it caused people to die. It caused a riot. It caused so I guess I mean, I guess he's a guy with no soul and no conscience or what.

CARUSONE: I mean, I think part of it is to keep in mind is that if there's a crop of these figures from the nineties, Tucker was a part of them and I think this still happens in right-wing media, but I can only speak to them because there's been so much written about it from – including from people that were from this group. It's ends justify the means; you believe that you're fighting for a righteous cause, so who cares?

BRAUDE: It's like this takeover, guys, Margery, who take over a company and fire 3,000 people, but.

EAGAN: That's not fighting for a righteous cause. I think. I mean, he basically was mad, too, because they were losing audience share right to whatever it was, Newsmax, whatever it was. And he was worried about the money. That was one of the things he did reveal in the texts, wasn't it?


CARUSONE: Yeah, yeah, that's right. Yeah. I mean, and also but I think a lot of it was tied into his power too, you know, Tucker doesn't have a radio show, unlike Hannity, unlike other Fox figures – you know, Mark Levin has a radio show. He has  – they have other ways of speaking to a large audience independent from their Fox show. Tucker is all in on Fox right now. He has his TV show. And then they use him pretty aggressively to convert people to Fox Nation. He doesn't have an alternative platform, not that he necessarily really wants one. But if the Fox brand goes sour too fast, he loses his people. So there's a self-interest.

BRAUDE: You know, Angelo Carusone, there's a dreaded local angle to talk about briefly too. Curt Schilling, who helped this city win a World Series and was beloved is, I think it's fair to say he's a pretty much a Qanon type. Well, everybody here knows what Curt Schilling is, what kind of audience is about to get with this hiring by Fox Sports, what is called OutKick or something like that?

CARUSONE: Yeah, he's going to get a pretty significant audience and that's – and I think this is where a lot of things go in the future. I always look around what's around the bend. And, part of the way that the right-wing media broadly is transforming just because they have so many resources to do it is that they've been putting a lot of money and time, and energy into what we've been calling cultural crossover. So these are figures that don't really identify as political first, but weaved into all of their other commentary discussion. They're talking about political content or worldviews, sort of shaping content, and in a way, it's much more potent.

You reach what you need, you reach much wider audiences and people than just want straight political commentary. And so and because it's not coming at them exactly, always head-on, it can be really powerful and it's consistent. And now one of the most watched people on election night 2020 was this YouTuber Steven Crowder. Guy had millions of viewers, maybe the most watched in the country, even though most people haven't heard of him. He used to be a gaming streamer. Most of his audience came from gaming and it's the same thing here – that what he's about to get access to is a parallel audience tied into the Fox ecosystem that gets echoed through it, too. You know, they'll take that clip. It will make its way through all the Fox properties, too. We see it time and again on Fox & Friends on the weekends. They'll do news segments about it and that i– t'll be another piece of this feedback loop. And he is about to be now, it's not just who he'll reach, but rather his own presence, who he is, what he's done in the past – will serve as validation within this larger feedback loop.

BRAUDE: And so we really appreciate your time. It was great. Thanks so much. Good luck to you.

EAGAN: It was great. Yeah, I very much appreciate your work. Somebody's got to be on top of this stuff. Angelo.