Last October, jurors in Connecticut ordered Alex Jones to pay nearly $1 billion to the families of the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The next month, a judge added another nearly $500 million in various fees. It was described at the time as the largest known defamation award at trial in the history of the United States.
This week, as we know, Fox News settled with Dominion Voting systems for $787.5 million.* This has been described as the largest known defamation settlement in the history of the United States.
Do we see a pattern here, folks? Fox News is the largest right-wing propaganda network in the country. Alex Jones’s Infowars, which includes a website and loads of streamed videos, is not nearly as large as Fox. But it is a “media organization,” or at least gets to act like one under the agreed-upon rules, and it too reaches a hefty audience (around 16 million visitors a month to the website, according to one site I looked at). Indeed Jones, after the 2021 death of Rush Limbaugh but before the defamation award, might have made a plausible claim to being the single most influential voice on the far right (although maybe Tucker Carlson overtook him somewhere in that time frame).
However you rank them, the plain truth is that Alex Jones and Fox News are vastly influential right-wing “media” voices. And now one has been assigned to pay history’s largest defamation award and the other to pay history’s largest defamation settlement.
This is not a coincidence. This is how they roll. Lying is what these people do. Why? A few reasons. Money, mostly, as the Fox-Dominion depositions showed (“It is not red or blue, it’s green,” Rupert Murdoch said). Also, to shock and upset conventional liberal opinion (which is tied to money, of course, because the more shocking they are, the higher the ratings, and the greater the profit).
And finally, for ideological reasons. There isn’t much of an ideological angle in a comment like this one, which Jones made about a grieving parent the night after the shooting: “You know, after you lose your daughter, they put you on some antidepressants or something, but I thought those take a month to kick in. I mean, it’s like a look of absolute satisfaction, like he’s about to accept an Oscar.” But remember that Jones also said this: “Why did Hitler blow up the Reichstag—to get control! Why do governments stage these things—to get our guns! Why can’t people get that through their head?” That’s a clear ideological defense of his lies.
The record would seem to indicate that Fox executives and anchors had no ideological motivation, because said record suggests that they knew Donald Trump was lying about the 2020 election. But their choice to go along with the Big Lie was partly an ideological choice too, and for this reason: They understood the stakes of going along with the lie. They knew very well that if Trump got his way, and states tried to put in substitute slates of electors or Mike Pence refused to certify the electoral votes on January 6, 2021, that would have been the end of more than 240 consecutive years of democratic rule in the U.S. The end! And they went along. It was driven by ratings in the first instance—which is hardly an excuse, by the way—but it was also revealing of the ideology of the place, where democracy takes a distant second to power.
They lie. They lie all the time about practically everything. It’s a strategy. Turn reality on its head. Invert every question. Cherry-pick evidence. Here’s a comparatively benign, wonky example. There’s a recent book out called The Myth of Inequality, co-written by former Senator Phil Gramm, which argues that inequality has shrunk, not increased, over recent decades. One chief claim in the book is that the way we measure inequality doesn’t count transfers of “wealth” to poor people like Medicare and Medicaid. Well … it’s true to some extent that these are resources that are transferred to poorer Americans—but mainly if they get sick! TNR’s Tim Noah demolished this argument last fall, writing: “By Gramm’s logic, the sicker you get, the richer you become.” Gramm and his co-authors also wrote—for real—that Ebenezer Scrooge is misunderstood.
That, as I said, is a more quotidian example of the way they lie, but its very quotidian-ness makes my point: They lie about virtually everything, because reality is at odds with their worldview. Sometimes those lies are merely insidious, with horrible consequences for policymaking and society (that inequality is shrinking; that charter schools do better than public schools). But other times, the lies are vicious and unspeakable, with potentially tragic consequences for society. And they don’t care.
Meanwhile … where are the massive defamation lawsuits against MSNBC, HuffPost, and the like? Funny thing. They don’t exist. It’s not that these outlets, and other mainstream and liberal ones, have never been sued. Everybody makes errors, sometimes fairly bad ones. But we—both the avowedly liberal media and the mainstream media—don’t lie as a strategy. And the right is reduced to trying to catch the mainstream media in lies by … in essence, lying—i.e., sending people like James O’Keefe out to try to dupe people and get them to admit certain things and heavily edit the resulting conversations.
They’ve been lying for years. Reality was bound to catch up. But they still are able to use the cover of the First Amendment to lie—to help destroy, paradoxically, the very democracy that the First Amendment was written to sustain. There is much more to be done to rein them in. Go, Smartmatic.
* This article originally misstated the amount for which Fox settled.