MMFA President Angelo Carusone warns Fox is about to get even worse

Carusone: “I think the warning that I would have for everyone is that Fox is going to burn brighter and hotter for at least the foreseeable future because they have no other choice"

Angelo Carusone on Mornings with Zerlina, 3/7/23

Audio file

Citation From the March 7, 2023, edition of SiriusXM's Mornings with Zerlina

ZERLINA MAXWELL (HOST): It leads me to my next question, which is about what revelations we learned in Rupert Murdoch's testimony. Because I think the testimony, along with, you know, some of the other details, like what Laura Ingraham was saying, what Sean Hannity was saying behind the scenes versus what they were saying in public is actually a demonstration of this battle that you're talking about. 

ANGELO CARUSONE: Yeah, and what, you know, what they were — one is that they were texting each other, the hosts, in late November 2020 and early December as they were pushing these, you know, these conspiracy theories that there was software inside the machines that was made by Venezuela, that was going to like -- that was promoting socialism and was switching votes to Joe Biden. As they were promoting these wacky, completely unfounded claims, they were complaining about it. They were complaining about the messengers. They were, you know, they thought, they kept saying that Sidney Powell, who was one of the chief advocates for this, was f-ing crazy. They called her a lunatic. They were attacking Rudy Giuliani in essentially the same terms. And that none of this stuff they believed. But yet, they were increasing their coverage of it, in part because they realized that that's where their audience was and that they didn't have a — they didn't have at least a business case and if they wanted to keep their power — because this is as much about power as it is about profit — and I think so much of the focus is on the money. But they could make more money if they did less crazy stuff, just a little. If they dialed down the crazy, they would actually make a little bit more money. But they choose to sort of balance both because it's about power. And I actually think the most damning stuff, though, came out in Rupert Murdoch's testimony, because what he did was two things: One, he endorsed the idea. I mean, he said very clearly that his hosts were endorsing the lies about Dominion and about the election. He didn't just say they were giving a platform to it, which is an important — which was an important part of their defense until he blew it up. He said they're endorsing it, that they were essentially helping advocate for it because that's what they were -- that they were proactively making those claims on air. So that's the first piece, is that it's an important legal part, but it's also an important part for understanding Fox's role in all of this is that they were not just, you know, giving sort of these sort of neutral people, allowing for discussion to flourish and giving these ideas, even if we find them odious, a platform. They were helping advance them cause they endorsed them. 

And then the second thing that he sort of said that I found really critical, aside from what else we found out, was that he talked about this meeting that took place on January 5, and it was basically these Fox executives where they all agreed that Fox was a uniquely positioned outlet, that they were basically the only entity in the country that could actually break through to a very large segment of Trump supporters to get them to believe that, you know, to say, look, Joe Biden actually won the election. And on January 5, they 1) acknowledged their unique position and then said, OK, let's do — maybe we should do this. You know, maybe we should go out there and say very clearly to our audience that Joe Biden won the election and that the election was stolen because we're the only ones that can do it. And then they sort of thought they should do it, and then at the end they decided, no, we're not going to do that. And then, of course, January 6 was the insurrection. So they actually had a pretty -- an inflection moment where I think they could have helped take the pressure out quite a bit had they gone out and made those pronouncements, but they didn't. And I think those are pivotal. 

And then beyond that, beyond the insurrection stuff, it definitely pulled back any veneer, which I just, I didn't think existed, but apparently a large part of the public did, that Fox News was a political operation. And I think the most damning thing that we found out was that Rupert Murdoch, which is also kind of embarrassing for Rupert Murdoch, but he took a — when campaigns buy ads, a lot of that stuff is confidential until it runs. So, you know, networks actually get a copy of the ad before it goes live. They get other information about it, who's being targeted, how they're running the ads, when they're running the ads. Rupert Murdoch took confidential information that Fox had about ad buys that Joe Biden's campaign was making and gave it to the Trump campaign, which is, like I said, partly embarrassing, but also a pretty big violation of the law. Like, that's an illegal contribution in addition to, like, you know, a significant breach of responsibility as an advertiser, I mean, as a platform that has advertisers. So I think that that that's another sort of uncomfortable thing that we learned was how normal some of this misconduct was. 

MAXWELL: Yeah. I mean, I think that, I mean, what you're describing is just, like, crazy. Right? I mean, like, for a news organization to give one side of a presidential election confidential information to help them in their campaign, I mean, that's like we were talking about collusion in another context, like, you know, in previous election cycles. But that word brings to mind. I mean, it feels like part of what you said is really true, that there is no veneer that this is a news organization versus a political organization, a political operation. But also, I think one of the fascinating things is how you see how they're talking about people in private and criticizing Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani in private but yet putting those people on air. Talk a bit about how they're putting these people on air, even though in private they're calling them crazy. 

CARUSONE: Yeah, and that's — it's important for a couple reasons. One, they really were really ripping these people apart and also the ideas that their audience wanted, like, they definitely were kind of derisive about their audience at different points too for, you know, and they almost felt like they were handcuffed in some cases saying, oh, yeah, we have to do this because the audience wants it, the audience believes it. Or there's this discussion between Rupert Murdoch and Suzanne Scott where they acknowledge -- she's the president of Fox News -- where they all acknowledge that this stuff is crazy. Like they're literally calling it crazy. But Suzanne Scott says, well, in order to sort of -- but our audience isn't there, so what we need to do is get our audience there. So we'll slowly start the process of unwinding all of what we did. And just to put a picture on what they actually did, in mid-November, after Fox started getting cannibalized by other right-wing outlets, they did, from that moment on, they attack the election results over the following couple of weeks 774 individual times. I mean, 774 segments, that's like a year's worth of coverage on a major story. And even then that would be considered a lot of coverage for any network to provide to something. That's like two segments a day.


CARUSONE: So in this case, they did it over a couple weeks. I mean, they really went all-in on undermining and attacking and amplifying these conspiracies. And why it matters is not just that they were -- they decided, hey, we're going to make sure that we don't lose our position of power as sort of the gatekeeper, you know, and that sort of editorial narrative power that we have maintained within the right-wing echo chamber, but it's also a legal problem for them because then you had their own legal counsel and Paul Ryan, who is on their board, sending Rupert Murdoch messages saying, look, legally, from a fiduciary perspective, we can't keep giving these people a platform to say explicit lies about Dominion, about the election without actually challenging it, because we are now knowingly advancing these attacks and we have responsibilities, we have legal responsibility.

So it's significant not just because they kept intensifying the damage, knowing that that's what their audience wanted, even though they kind of, they explicitly said they didn't believe it. But legally, that's really what creates the problem for them is that they then were fairly well-advised that this stuff, that they had obligations and continued to do it anyway because they knew that the second they started to challenge that narrative explicitly that their audience would attack them.  

MAXWELL: I mean, it feels like this is — there's been a lot of debate in the legal space about, you know, libel law and the impact of this particular lawsuit on the future of libel law and what precedent was set. But it feels like what you just said is actually the most important detail in the specific case, which is that this may fall outside of the scope of, like, any protections Fox has because, you know, as a media organization, you do have a responsibility to not lie, allegedly, about, like, another private company. I mean, that feels like they're outside the scope of what the normal role is in a traditional libel case that deals with a traditional media organization. 

CARUSONE: Totally. There isn't a risk here of this being, like, a case that changes the law and makes news outlets or anything calling itself a news outlet more liable. This is not going to change the law. If it does end up changing the law, it'll be in the opposite direction. It will be in allowing for more lies and weakening any sort of defamation protections. It's not going to be more restrictive. It is impossible because, you know, as you noted, they really did exceed this threshold of knowingly or intentionally, you know, promoting lies. And also what came out in these filings is that on multiple occasions, Dominion was like, you said this thing on air three times, they would send these memos, these requests, saying you said this thing on the air three times. It's simply not true. Here's the evidence that it's not true. Let us book somebody on air. Let us book a spokesperson to come. So if you're going to keep hosting Sidney Powell, if you're going to keep hosting these people to claim these falsehoods about us, and you want to treat this like a debate, at least let us get a spokesperson on there to challenge it. And Fox internally said, no, we're not doing that. So that's the other part, is that it definitely -- they weakened their own defense by not even providing another perspective on the stuff that they were claiming. 

And I think it all gets back to what Rupert Murdoch acknowledged, which is that his hosts weren't here to promote a platform, to give a platform, they were endorsing the ideas. And when I just sum it all up it's that they knew, they all knew. And I think that that's why this is not going to have any concerns legally from the perspective of weakening the already pretty high threshold that's there. It's not going to undermine the First Amendment. The only thing this is really about is is whether or not Fox News is going to be held accountable for what they've done. 
MAXWELL: In terms of that accountability piece, I want to hone in on something that you said before, which is the January 5 meeting. It feels to me like now that we know what happened — right? The insurrection followed — how much worse does it make Fox look, considering the fact that they're peddling conspiracies that in private they're saying they know are not true and that, you know, they're categorizing as insane when there were so many experts and other folks saying this is going to incite violence, this could be potentially bad, this is going to, you know, there could be mobs, and you know, watch out on January 6. All of that information was being passed around law enforcement entities. I mean, talk about Fox's responsibility and, you know, going forward in the present and going forward in and if they've learned at all from 2020 and the insurrection.  

CARUSONE: I mean, I think that they — I mean, they clearly haven't. Because right now they're in the process of doing an official rewrite of that insurrection. You know, I mean, Tucker Carlson has access to these documents, to about 40,000 hours of tapes. And they're basically going to make the case that this is that this was not actually a insurrection at all, that it was a false flag operation that was put on by the Democrats, by Nancy Pelosi, by the FBI, and enabled by the media, that the media sort of took that false flag narrative and sort of pushed it into the zeitgeist. And they're going to use their access to those 40,000 hours of tapes as the validating source. 

So going forward, have they learned? No. In fact, I think the warning that I would have for everyone is that Fox is going to burn brighter and hotter for at least the foreseeable future because they have no other choice. And that's the one big takeaway for what the significance of this is for all of us moving forward. Even if people don't care about the accountability, the lawsuits. The fact is that they said it and they said it plain and simple. They feel that they don't have an alternative. They've got their audience so hopped up and so sort of bought in on this ends-justify-the-means approach to what Fox News does that they will burn brighter and hotter for — to keep their power, to keep their audience, and because they're in the process right now of converting as many people as they possibly can to their paid subscription service.

Because of all the jockeying, this sorting that's happening in the space, they know that there's a really short shelf life right now for help for capturing and maintaining their position within the larger right-wing echo chamber and that they need to do this to keep their audience. So they're actually going to get worse, not better in the short term. And that I find really, really scary for all of us, especially because for some reason Fox gets grandfathered — like, it matters because Fox is grandfathered in. Infowars is not part of the White House press pool. You know, Infowars doesn't have a Sunday show where Democratic leaders sit down, where newsmakers sit down and treat it like it's another news operation. And why that matters is that when you're in that position, you can launder misinformation. We saw this a lot during the attacks on Hillary Clinton, you know, during Benghazi and emails — so much stuff was laundered through Fox News that came from the right-wing fever swamps. And it sort of was treated different by the rest of the media because Fox pushed it. So to me, that's the significance is what it means — it means they're going to get worse. And unless we all sort of reorient how we treat and think about Fox News, they'll have the ability to operationalize that sort of intensification.