Updated: 23 days, 9 hours, 15 minutes, 47 seconds ago

HAVE you ever made a decision knowing that it’s a mistake but you go against better judgement, in the hope you’ll be proven wrong? This is how I felt when I chose to watch breaking news coverage of PTI leader Imran Khan showing up in court to seek bail. Channel X made it out like the courts were waiting for Khan to arrive at his leisure while Channel Y was reporting dire consequences for his no-show. Was the truth somewhere in between? I found my answers the next day in the newspapers and I realised how much trouble I’d be in if I had to rely on TV ‘angertainment’ as my source of information.

There is a channel for whichever politician you support and then extreme versions of it too. As a result, there’s varying degrees of the truth audiences want to hear. Fair and balanced reporting has been replaced with corrupt media practices.

Nowhere was this made more evident than the Dominion case against Fox News in the US.

The US voting company Dominion filed a defamation case against Fox News in March 2021 for airing false claims about the 2020 elections. One claim was that Donald Trump’s defeat was due to electoral fraud committed on Dominion machines. Earlier this month, a brief calling for a summary judgement was released to the public. The near 200-page document establishes that senior figures, including anchors, knew they were airing false information.

There’s varying degrees of the truth audiences want to hear.

It also shows the panic that set in when Fox News correctly called Arizona state for Biden the night of the election. Executives panicked because they feared losing viewers. Sure enough, there were protests outside Fox offices by Trump supporters the next day. Anchor Tucker Carlson texted his producer and revealed his fear that “Trump is a demonic force … who could easily destroy us if we play it wrong”.

In an email by VP Prime Time Program­m­­­ing, Ron Mitchell on Nov 18, he expresses concern about losing viewers and suggests they “not ever give viewers reasons to turn us off”.

So they decided to support Trump’s narrative of election fraud and aired it, according to the complaint “800 times”.

This is not about facts. This is about indulging in misinformation to keep viewers hooked. This doesn’t sound like a news organisation. It sounds like a propaganda outfit. I wonder how viewers feel knowing that there is documentation of Fox anchors privately calling Trump’s electoral fraud claims “kooky” and “totally off the rails” and “dangerously insane” and, according to the big man himself, Rupert Murdoch, “really crazy stuff and damaging”.

My personal favourite is how one of the sources for the election fraud claim said she got her information from “experiencing so­­mething like time-travel in a semi-conscious state” which allowed her to “see what others don’t see and hear what others don’t hear.”

The Dominion defamation case is likely to be a landmark judgement. Defamation cases are tricky because it’s often difficult to prove the person/organisation willfully spread misinformation. But Dominion claims their documentation shows “the words of multiple Fox employees provide overwhelming direct evidence of actual malice”. Lawyers for Fox, meanwhile, argue their anchors are protected by the First Amendment. But civil liberties lawyers say that while journalists have the right to report what Trump said, that right does not extend to validating his statements.

Fox News knew it was lying and did many disservices to its audience when they claimed otherwise. I believe one of the consequences of those lies resulted in the Jan 6 attack on the US Capi­tol. They may have to pay a huge price for their strategy. Perhaps the figure of $1.6 billion may serve as a new form of self-censorship or maybe that amount does not matter when there’s more profit to be made in airing falsehoods.

Closer to home, I know many of us may be able to draw some parallels with news or­­ganisations here that put on air folks who’ll say anything to get ratings. They know what works to get audiences and get them riled up. They get away with it because there are no consequences, at least not in Pakistan. Perhaps the rewards for peddling lies outweigh the polarisation caused to society.

As journalism professor Jay Rosen noted, Fox is not a news organisation or opinion. “It is something else: Power formation by means of resentment news.” For profit.

When did news organisations stop caring about public interest and become all about shilling for politicians, the military industr­ial complex or corporate interests? Prob­ably when businesses saw the media industry as an opportunity to buy influence. It’s imperative then that audiences understand they are watching a propaganda arm of XYZ party and not a news organisation whose job is to disregard your feelings and go out to report the events as they happen. To do otherwise is the real threat to democracy.

The writer is currently researching newsroom culture in Pakistan.

Twitter: @LedeingLady

Published in Dawn, February 26th, 2023