Fox News media critic Howard Kurtz claimed he’d cover “both sides” of Dominion Voting System’s defamation case against Fox but in reality, he glossed over Fox’s journalistic malfeasance and provided quite a disingenuous defense.
Kurtz got some sympathetic attention at the end of February when he spoke out against Fox’s prohibition against talking about the Dominion case. I was skeptical. I called it a CYA move in the face of the jaw-dropping revelations about Fox’s deliberate disregard for the truth about the 2020 election, its efforts to stifle the truth and promote pro-Trump lies that it knew were baseless. I also suggested Kurtz would have echoed Fox's talking points about the suit had he spoken. That’s exactly what he did yesterday.
“I’m not sugarcoating the allegations in this $1.6 billion suit,” Kurtz said early on in his commentary. Notice he didn’t say anything about not sugarcoating the revelations because what he said about those could have been scripted by Fox’s PR and/or legal team.
“Fox has taken a hit in the court of public opinion,” Kurtz continued, “but there was a crucial First Amendment argument here involving the coverage of unsubstantiated claims of 2020 election fraud by Donald Trump and his allies.”
Kurtz ignored or minimized how much disinformation Fox promoted: how its top hosts and top executives deliberately lied to promote the pro-Trump disinformation about the 2020 election and worked to suppress the facts as he went on to portray Fox as some kind of conservative victim.
KURTZ: Fox says Dominion has been cherry-picking quotes from depositions: “Dominion has been caught red-handed using more distortions and misinformation in their PR campaign to smear Fox News and trample on free speech and freedom of the press.”
Now, I’m going to give you both sides but let me say this: Fox’s critics and competitors are denouncing the network and many of them are rooting not just for Fox to lose the suit but to be wiped out as a company because they can’t stand the mostly conservative views of a relative handful of opinion hosts, the essence of free speech.
Talk about cherry-picking! Kurtz conveniently ignored that it wasn’t just a few opinion hosts in on the Fox lies but the top brass. And we’re not talking about “mostly conservative views” but the ethos of a network devoted to propaganda over truth. It’s pathetic that “media critic” Kurtz overlooked that.
KURTZ: The heart of the Dominion suit is a gap between some hosts privately they didn’t believe Trump’s fraud claims or didn’t like the president and what was said on the air.
FACT CHECK: Actually, the heart of the suit is that Fox promoted lies about Dominion that top people at the network knew were false or baseless.
KURTZ: Dominion argues Fox duped the audience to boost ratings. But while any company’s confidential messages would be embarrassing, let me point out a couple of things you may not have heard in the barrage of negative coverage.
Maria Bartiromo invited Dominion CEO John Poulos to come on her show but he declined that and numerous other requests. Instead, she read a Dominion statement saying the latest flood of absurdities is deeply concerning. Only one Dominion spokesman agreed to a Fox News interview.
So, Fox is absolved from reporting the truth about Dominion and the election because the CEO didn’t want to appear on a network that was promoting falsehoods about his company?
Kurtz continued by attacking Poulos further, which has nothing to do with whether or not Fox defamed Dominion:
KURTZ: Poulos said, a month after the election, that what you’re missing is that no customer cares about the media, it’s just more words from their perspective and Bartiromo wrote Dominion spokesman that “I’m not sure what to think about the totally unsubstantiated election fraud claims by Trump lawyer Sidney Powell,” who she interviewed, and “we will need to see hard evidence in the next three weeks.”
As if Bartiromo had no responsibility to make sure the inflammatory attacks on the election she was promoting were true. Think Kurtz would let CNN or MSNBC off the hook that way?
Kurtz went on to the “we were sometimes honest” excuse.
KURTZ: Some hosts dealt with the allegations skeptically, others did not. Fox aired a news conference, so did C-Span, by the way, in which Powell and fellow Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani made unproven claims that Dominion machines were created in Venezuela to help Hugo Chavez steal elections.
POWELL: The Dominion voting system, it can set and run an algorithm that probably ran all over the country to take a certain percentage of votes from President Trump and flipped them to President Biden.
KURTZ: Rupert Murdoch said in an internal message that this was “really crazy stuff damaging everybody, I fear.” Tucker Carlson privately described Powell as a liar but publicly called her out after his show kept texting her for proof of her allegations.
Kurtz played a clip of Carlson saying that Powell “never sent us any evidence despite a lot of requests, polite requests.”
Kurtz did not mention that after that, Carlson allowed Mike Lindell, a major advertiser on the Tucker Carlson Tonight show, to spread election lies without challenge, nor Rupert Murdoch’s implicit approval of hosting Lindell because, as he agreed, “It is not red or blue, it is green.” (P. 36)
KURTZ: Now, the period on the scrutiny began as Fox’s ratings were dropping after the network projected that Joe Biden had won Arizona and, despite tremendous pressure, the network stood by the decision desk’s accurate call.
Kurtz failed to mention that Dominion's filing revealed that Rupert Murdoch discussed with Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott sending “a big message” to Trump allies by firing two key people involved in the Arizona call. And they were fired two months later.
KURTZ: Internal messages made clear the top executives were concerned about alienating the heavily pro-Trump audience. Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott wrote, “we will highlight our stars and plant flags letting the viewers know we hear them and respect them.
Rupert Murdoch testified that some opinion hosts did endorse the unproven fraud theories but not all of Fox, he said, adding, “I would have liked us to be stronger in denouncing it in hindsight.”
Fox challenges that the Dominion claim of 1.6 billion in damages is inflated given that a private equity firm bought three quarters of the company five years ago for $38 million.
Legally, Dominion must prove Fox acted with malice or reckless disregard for the truth. There was, to be sure, straight reporting by the news division which also caused some friction but the fact that some people in the chain of command privately dismiss the fraud claims as nuts or outlandish or insane doesn’t necessarily mean Fox couldn’t cover and comment on the extremely newsworthy spectacle of a president saying an election was stolen.
Surely Kurtz knows Fox was not merely covering and commenting on the news but deliberately promoting falsehoods. But he closed with another round of whitewashing and conservative victimhood, straight from the mouth of Lachlan Murdoch, who has admitted he helpied shape Fox’s post-2020 election coverage.
KURTZ: That’s why this case is a major test of the First Amendment. And a footnote: Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch said the other day the network has an obligation to report the news fairly. “I think a lot of the noise you hear about this case is actually not about the law and is not about journalism and is really about the politics.” That, he said, reflects our polarized society.
When Kurtz complained about the network not allowing him to discuss the Dominion case, I questioned whether he’d say anything other than Fox’s corporate line if he had the chance, especially since all the lies happened under his nose:
What did Kurtz want to say about the Dominion lawsuit? That he was shocked to learn Fox was lying to its viewers? That it was all just a brief lapse in judgment? Or would he take Fox’s side and argue that, as The New York Times described Fox’s defense, “the network was doing what any media organization would: reporting and commenting on a matter of undeniable newsworthiness. And it noted that many of its programs did not endorse the claim that the election was stolen.”
Kurtz strikes me as a decent fellow in real life. It’s a shame to watch him twist himself into a pretzel defending what he surely knows is indefensible.
You can watch it below, from the March 12, 2023 MediaBuzz.
Doing his best to put lipstick on a pig, Kurtz dubiously paraphrases Dominion as saying that Fox “duped the audience”, which, unlike lying or at least recklessly abandoning journalistic ethics, can be interpreted as insulting Fox viewers as dupable. Kurtz expresses outrage that Dominion only provided one spokesperson. How many spokespersons would it have taken to forestall this pseudo-criticism?