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The Most Troubling in Mr. Murdoch’s Deposition

Progress in knowledge and ultimately in economic growth and prosperity requires some freedom of speech and some economic freedom; and the more of them, the better. This is not to say that these freedoms only have benefits, but that they have more advantages than drawbacks. The deposition of Rupert Murdoch in the defamation lawsuit of Dominion against his company Fox News may serve to illustrate—keeping in mind that only part of the information has been made public.

What has come out of Mr. Murdoch’s deposition is that he knew very soon after the November 2020 election that Trump’s claim of decisive fraud, as well as claims that Dominion’s voting machines were complicit, did not make rational sense. Perhaps some of that was delusion, but many must have lied to make the delusion stick. The Financial Times reports (Anna Kicolaou, “‘Panic Station at Fox News’: How the Murdochs Agonised Over Trump Loss,” Financial Times, March 3, 2023):

The evidence—consisting of depositions and hundreds of internal company communications harvested during legal discovery—shows that Fox for months agonised over how to handle Trump’s election denialism. …

The December [2020] email to [network’s chief executive, Suzanne] Scott came after Murdoch and his eldest son Lachlan, Fox chief executive, received a panicked text from Paul Ryan, former speaker of the House and a Fox board member. …

The filings paint a picture of Murdoch and Fox executives as being terrified that viewers would desert the channel. …

“It’s not red or blue, it’s green,” Rupert Murdoch said of the channel when deposed in Los Angeles in January as part of the lawsuit.

Murdoch conceded that while he did not believe the fraud claims, he did not want to antagonise Trump because “he had a very large following, and they were probably viewers of Fox.”. …

Fox’s own internal fact-checkers concluded as early as November 13 [2020] that the fraud accusations were incorrect. …

Scott was worried about “pissing off the viewers”, she told Murdoch, according to an email.

Green is of course the color of dollar bills. In other words, Fox News and most of its hosts and executives were consciously promoting the opposite of the truth because they did not want to lose audience, that is, money. They knew that what a large part of their audience wanted to hear was that Trump had won the election. They were consciously selling the lies that their audience wanted to hear.

The Murdoch family is also a large shareholder of News Corp, owner of the Wall Street Journal, which is better staffed and managed, presumably because its clientèle is in large part made of people who need true economic information to navigate the economy and make money, or simply to actually understand the world. Two days ago, the WSJ ran a story that confirms what the Financial Times had revealed (see Joe Fling and Keach Hagey, “Inner Workings of Fox News on Display in Defamation Case,” Wall Street Journal, March 6, 2023).

A Martian landing on earth who knew nothing of human history might conclude that this lack of concern for the truth is the unavoidable cost of a regime of liberty. The free press, he would think, sells to its audiences entertainment and confirmation of their prior biases. He might infer that, for humans, information should be delivered free and good by the government only. But if he only knew some political history or economic theory, he would know that the outcome this alternative system would be worse, soon producing only one-sided propaganda and dull entertainment. With a free press, at least, truth and information still have a chance because competitors can supply true information as long as some consumers are willing to pay for it.

The most troubling fact is that millions of Fox News watchers were not interested in the truth, at best because they were dead sure that they already had found it in their wishful intuitions and the utterances of hero-demagogues; at worst because they are happy to live in a lie.

Of course, one must always keep his mind open to rational challenge and refutation of his beliefs by evidence.

Heir to the Enlightenment, classical liberals thought that popular education would prevent the victory of lies and the spread of snake oil. In America and elsewhere in the world, it seemed to work for a while. Why has the engine stalled? The best hypothesis, it seems to me, is that the institutions of schooling and education have degenerated, probably captured by bureaucrats, trade unions, and authoritarian democracy. We see this on the left and on the right, which both favor education as a propaganda machine.

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime

Rayna Prime Editor