Inside the Fox News Sausage Factory
The Dominion Voting Systems court filing illustrates how the "propaganda feedback loop" operates in real time.
I have written previously about how the demise of traditional media gatekeepers and social trust have resulted in “cool trust” — the need to police social norms through formal rules and legal enforcement since we can no longer count on people to be honest and civic-minded. The latest example of this phenomenon is Dominion Voting System’s defamation lawsuit against Fox News, in which Dominion alleges that the network knowingly promoted lies about voter fraud to the company’s financial and reputational detriment. Dominion’s motion for summary judgment (a legal motion asking the court to rule that it has proven its case on the facts without the need for a trial) provides a rare window into how the sausage — meaning, propaganda — is made at Fox News. As many legal commentators have noted, the filing is remarkable in that what is shows is not just a rogue reporter or one-off false statement (as is the case with most defamation cases), but rather an entire symbiotic system built on the network knowingly deceiving its viewers for profit. It is a perfect illustration of what scholars Hal Roberts, Robert Faris, and Yochai Benckler refer to in their book Network Propaganda as the “propaganda feedback loop.”
I briefly referred to the propaganda feedback loop model in my post about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle and their foray into information warfare. But before diving into it in more detail here, it’s worth zooming back and understanding where, exactly, Fox News fits in the entire media ecosystem. In my course at Yale, I use the following media bias chart from Ad Fontes Media as a guide for my students to study how the news is presented in different information “siloes.” (The chart shouldn’t be taken as gospel, but it’s the most helpful one I’ve found and I find it to be pretty accurate — you can find out more about Ad Fontes’ methodology here.)
You can see that Fox News is positioned at the “hyper-partisan right” point of the spectrum (the x-axis), and on the cusp between “opinion OR wide variation in reliability” and “selective, incomplete, unfair persuasion, propaganda, or other issues” (the y-axis). (One hopes that as a result of the latest court filing, the network will move farther down the reliability scale — you’ll note that specific shows, like Tucker Carlson and Jesse Watters, are already in the “propaganda” silo.)
At first glance, it seems like Fox News has an equal counterpart on the other end of the political spectrum: There are, after all, outlets in the same (un)reliability bubble but on the “hyper-partisan left” point of the x-axis. But this seeming mirror image is misleading. A number of years ago, a student of mine mapped the media bias chart (obviously using a much earlier version of it than the one shown above, though most of the major outlets, including Fox News, were in similar positions then) based on the number of readers/viewers for that outlets. His bubble chart was interesting; he hypothesized that although there were hyper-partisan, propaganda outlets on “both sides,” the center of gravity on the right seemed concentrated around less, reliable, hyper-partisan sites, whereas the center of gravity on the left seemed to be around more traditional, mainstream media outlets which were much higher on the reliability scale:
His hypothesis was borne out by a 2017 study of the right and left-wing online media ecosystems during the 2016 election conducted by Benckler, et al. (and which was later expanded upon in their book). The study found that between April 1, 2015 and Election Day 2016, two distinct media systems were in play. Specifically, on the left, audiences were anchored around traditional professional media outlets like CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. By contrast, Breitbart was the center of gravity for the right-wing media, followed by Fox News. The following graph from their study demonstrates what this looked like in terms of social media sharing patterns on Twitter:
The key to the study’s findings was that while media was polarized, the polarization was asymmetric. That is, although hyper partisan sites exist on the left, they did not draw the same attention as the traditional, professional media outlets closer to the center left. They also overlapped with and were connected to the mainstream outlets. “The Breitbart-centered wing, by contrast,” the authors note, “is farther from the mainstream set and lacks bridging nodes that draw attention and connect it to that mainstream.” What that means is that while someone who reads Huff Po or The Daily Beast is likely to also read more center-left outlets like The Washington Post or The New York Times, the audiences for Breitbart and Fox were completely untethered to more reliable center right sites like The Wall Street Journal. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, the authors found that both the number of sites and attention for those sites on the right increased as the sites became more partisan, whereas “on the left, there is no dramatic increase in either the number of sites or levels of attention they receive as we move to more clearly partisan sites.” (The Columbia Journalism Review article when the study came out has a lot more graphs illustrating this point, but I think my student’s bubble chart viewed against the media bias chart conveys the same idea very well.)
In short, media attention on the right is both much farther from the center than its counterparts on the left AND insulated from traditional media. This point might seem obvious, but that fact has deeper implications for how these two media ecosystems operate more broadly. This is the focus of Chapter 3 of Network Propaganda, and the Dominion lawsuit provides an excellent case study of the propaganda model it presents.
First, though, let’s see how the “traditional” media system operates. Benckler et al., describe this system as a “reality check dynamic.” In such a system, truth is policed on a number of dimensions. For example, to maintain their own reputation as outlets that are honest, outlets must police politicians on the truth of their statements — this constrains what politicians, who are seeking favorable coverage, try to (and can) get away with on air. Media outlets also police each other, since a revelation that a competing outlet got a story wrong offers an opportunity to build their own audience and credibility. Both of these temper the extent to which traditional media outlets can offer 100% “identity confirming narratives” — in such a system audiences will inevitably hear things they don’t like or want to hear, and because there is also a truth-seeking motive by audiences, they may check what they are hearing from one outlet against another. Further, because audiences within this system are exposed to the media’s own internal policing (for example, an outlet might offer a retraction, or admit they misreported something), their trust is moderated — they approach the news more critically.
Of course, there are very few outlets that fall perfectly into this model — but it’s a relatively good one for describing those smack in the center of the media bias chart: Outlets like the AP, BBC, PBS, or even NPR. Outlets farther to the left may want to deliver more identity-confirming narratives, but the truth-policing mechanisms from all of the participants will act as a check on how unreliable they can become before their audience shrinks.
Now let’s look at what Benckler et al. refer to as the “propaganda feedback loop.” I’ll look at each side of this triangle with examples from the Dominion filing, but it basically describes “a self-reinforcing feedback loop that disciplines those who try to step off of it with lower attention or votes, and gradually over time increases the costs to everyone of introducing news that is not identity confirming, or challenges the partisan narratives and frames.”
1. Media: Deliver Identity Confirming Content in Return for Consumer Loyalty
A key difference between the reality check dynamic and the propaganda feedback loop is that the former clearly distinguishes between fact and opinion, while the latter does not. (If you study outlets moving farther from the center on the media bias chart, you’ll see that the line between the two becomes increasingly blurred.) In fact, Fox News tried to argue to the court in the lawsuit that it was just presenting “opinion” when it claimed that Dominion’s voting systems were rigged. The court disagreed; Dominion notes that “[t]he Court rejected Fox's context argument, instead concluding that statements themselves, as well as the context of the broadcasts, signaled to viewers that what was being heard was likely to be fact, not opinion.”
Further, the underlying reason that Fox News strayed so far from the truth in presenting its content was because it needed to provide its audience with what they wanted to hear. (For News refers to this as “respecting the audience.”) Indeed, Dominion’s lawsuit alleges that Fox News acted with “actual malice” — a statement made with knowledge “knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” It would be hard for a traditional media organization to meet this high bar, because it would be able to point to its own journalistic standards — the internal policing mechanisms I mentioned earlier — to argue that if a defamatory statement was made, it happened despite the outlet’s best efforts to ensure veracity. But Dominion notes that Fox News' goal was not accuracy; but appeasing its viewers. The filing quotes a senior Fox executive texting to Carlon’s producer, “We can't make people think we've turned against Trump. Yet also call out the bullshit. You and I see through it. But we have to reassure some in the audience.” Other anchors had the same approach. Here is Dominion’s excerpt from its deposition with Fox News anchor Maria Bartiromo:
‘Ratings are very important’ to Bartiromo and ‘They impact various aspects of [her] career at Fox.’ She agreed that ‘It's easier to get good ratings when you are giving your audience something they want to hear.’ Bartiromo and her producer Abby Grossberg knew that ‘Dominion rigged the election’ was exactly what the audience wanted to hear: Grossberg texted Bartiromo that, ‘To be honest, our audience doesn't want to hear about a peaceful transition. They still have hope…’ to which Bartiromo answered, ‘Yes, agree.’
The need to feed its audience identity-confirming content resulted in internal criticism of anchors who tried to hew to the truth: When anchor Neil Cavuto cut away from Kayleigh McEnany as she made unfounded allegations of fraud during a press conference, a Fox News executive complained that he was ruining the network’s brand.
A possible vulnerability in this type of system is that audiences may be exposed to reporting from more mainstream outlets that contradict what they are being told. In a reality-check dynamic, contradictory claims would cause a viewer to be circumspect and perhaps do more digging to see which claim is correct. But the propaganda feedback loop, there is an easy tactic to insulate viewers from the discomfort of having to hear non-identity conforming information: Discredit traditional media. Benckler et al. describe the process:
Members of the public now have media outlets and elites confirming their prior beliefs, contrary to what they hear on other media, and are also told by these outlets and elites that other media that contradict what they say are themselves biased and hence untrustworthy. The public that buys into this adjust their levels of trust in other media downward. This reduces the psychological cost of tuning in only to the bias-confirming outlets, as they are now more confident that the partisan good news they hear is true and conflicting news from other outlets is false.
We’ll get back to the “loop” part of this in a bit.
2. Politicians: Receive Favorable Coverage as Long as They Provide Identity-Confirming Narratives
We don’t get to see directly what is going on the politicians’ end in Dominion’s filing, but we definitely see how they treated Trump, or at least his lies. The filing notes that executives and anchors were anticipating Trump’s claims of election fraud, and were “embracing an election fraud narrative well before any ballot was cast.” They also provided favorable coverage to Trump’s proxies, Sydney Powell, Rudy Guiliani, and Mike Lindell. Here are some adjectives Fox News anchors used to describe these people in internal communications:
“off the reservation”
“on the crazy train with no brakes”
And yet, Fox News presented all of these sources as credible to its viewers. One reason, of course, is the enormous influence Trump has over Fox News’ audience. In the early days after the election, after Fox News called the election for Biden, Trump urged his Twitter followers to abandon Fox News and move to OANN. As we’ll see below, Trump’s followers in fact began doing just that — further incentivizing Fox News to align its news with what Trump was saying.
But most other politicians don’t have the outsize influence Trump has. They are expected to adapt their positions to conform to identity confirming narratives, or they are punished by the network with criticism and poor coverage. A great example of this was when Ted Cruz called the January 6 assault on the Capitol a “terrorist attack.” Carlson ranted about Cruz’s lie until Cruz came back on the show the following night to retract and apologize (read: grovel) for his comment. The Cruz story illustrates Benckler et al.’s observation that propaganda networks “align their coverage of politicians to offer favorable coverage to identity-confirming politicians and attacks on opponents, and when they police deviance from politicians, it is identity confirmation, not truth, that they police.”
3. Audience: Seek Identity-Confirming News and Identity-Confirming Politicians
Perhaps the most stunning — and somewhat surprising — aspect of the Dominion filing is how petrified Fox News is of its own audience. Indeed, it’s really a case of the inmates running the asylum.
As I noted above, one strategy that Fox News and other outlets in this media silo use to protect their audiences from the cognitive dissonance they may experience when they hear news that contradicts their worldview is to give them permission to discount it as “fake news.” Unfortunately, once an audience is conditioned this way, a network is basically trapped by a monster of its own making — as Fox News found out.
The Dominion filing recounts how Fox News became increasingly concerned — and indeed, panicked — about its ratings as it saw its audience share fall and Newsmax’s go up in the immediate aftermath of the election, before it began aggressively pushing false claims of election fraud. ( Fox News executives noted that Newsmax’s 7 p.m. show was drawing 1 million viewers.) Tucker Carlson went so far as to call for the firing of a Fox News reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, for tweeting a fact-check of one of Trump’s voter fraud claims. Brian Stelter describes the exchange in The Atlantic:
‘It needs to stop immediately, like tonight,’ Carlson wrote. ‘It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.’ Hannity replied and said he had already sent the accurate and thus offending tweet to Fox News Media CEO Suzanne Scott. ‘Sean texted me,’ Scott wrote to two colleagues. Apparently, Hannity had threatened to tweet back at Heinrich. ‘He’s standing down on responding,’ Scott wrote, ‘but not happy about this and doesn’t understand how this is allowed to happen from anyone in news.’ Scott was bothered too. She worried that reporters at other outlets would notice Heinrich’s tweet: ‘She has serious nerve doing this and if this gets picked up, viewers are going to be further disgusted.’
This nugget reveals something important and disturbing. Even if Dominion wins its lawsuit and financially cripples Fox News — the company is asking for $1.6 billion in damages — it won’t be the end of the propaganda feedback loop. Right-wing media is like a Hydra: Lop off Fox News and there are many other networks, like OANN and Newsmax, waiting in the wings to deliver what the audience wants to hear. What this means is that the right-wing news cycle is determined as much, if not more, by audience preferences as by the narratives promoted by producers and anchors. As the audience gets more rabid and extreme, the “news” outlets in this bubble — and the politicians who cater to them — will have no choice but to follow along. As I write this, Fox News just aired Marjorie Taylor Greene advocating for “civil war” — which is also coincidentally a goal of the white nationalist ideology, and one that has motivated recent attacks on power grids here in the U.S. It certainly seems like talking points are coming from the ground up, not the other way around.
One thing that we cannot lose sight of is that the harm inflicted by Fox News — even with regard to just the lies about Dominion Voting Systems — extends far beyond financial damages to the company. The claims of rigged voting led directly to specious “audits” in states like Arizona, New Mexico, and Wisconsin. They led to mental anguish suffered by election workers all over the country, who were stalked and harassed as a result of Fox News’ lies. They led to distrust in our democratic processes, public servants, and government institutions. And, of course, they led to an attack on the U.S. Capitol in which five people died. In its quest for ratings and profit, Fox News has blood on its hands.
The Freedom Academy with Asha Rangappa is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The first amendment creates a quagmire. As Tim Weiner discussed, is anyone on the hill going to address the vertical and horizontal control of all media by a few billionaire nut jobs who care more for profits than democracy?? No one files anti-trust lawsuits and they should. The end of the gilded age is a great example you gave professor, but how do we get there today?
Magnificent exposition and illustration Asha!
Over the past five decades – and more sharply over just the past few years – the geopolitical center of America has shifted rightward. On a host of issues, from guns to the role of government, the center of debate has shifted closer to the conservative position, while activists on the right have moved even further out on the political extreme.
The move began and has been most pronounced on fiscal matters, such as the size of government, cutting spending, cutting taxes, especially for the wealthiest few. The impetus, funding and ring-mastery to drive this rightward shift originated with billionaires like the Kochs and their network of the ultra-wealthy, determined to become ultra-wealthier by purchasing tax policy, driving their agenda through emotional manipulation of the citizenry with a divide and conquer strategy that the wealthy have successfully used to subjugate and rob the people for at least 5000 years. Fear-mongering about immigrants, about public schools, about green energy, Christian dominance, white replacement, all to create a large population of extremists who will empower politicians, who though they will cater to their voters worst impulses, are all the while doing the dirty work of shifting the burden of the costs of government to the lower and middle class, work they were sent there to do by the likes of Charles Koch, Peter Thiel, Tim Dunn and Faris Wilk.
Compared with the Republican candidates our oligarchs are funding, Barry Goldwater, the founder of the modern conservative movement – whose views were considered so extreme in 1964 that he was defeated in a landslide –seems very middle-of-the-road, and Richard Nixon seems like our last truly liberal president. As comedian Bill Maher put it in an interview with CNN more than 12 years ago, "Really, what we have is a debate between the center-right – the Democratic Party – and the far, far, far right – the Republican Party." Surveys over the last decade have shown the steady shift away from self-identification as “liberal“ to “conservative”, but what the surveys miss is that when Americans call themselves “liberal” and “conservative” it is not at all what they meant a generation ago, but has shifted, nay lurched to the right side of the spectrum.
Part of the strategy of our oligarchs is to convince the public that though the government spends all this money it can’t fill the potholes. Their political lackeys insure the money that is spent, like 800 billion on military expenditures, delivers massive profits to corporations and their investors while delivering no perceptible public benefit. Their ultimate targets of course are the destruction of organized labor, almost a fait accompli today, and the elimination of the social safety net, which they see as wasting money on the unproductive that should just go die in the gutter.
Obviously the strategy of the American oligarchy is working. During the liberal heyday of the 1930s and '40s, income inequality narrowed, and then remained relatively stable throughout the '50s and '60s. It wasn't until the '70s that it began widening. In 1976, the richest 1 percent of Americans took home 9 percent of the nation's total income; today, they are taking home 32.3 percent. And if we ask why lower-income voters keep voting against their own interest in response to drastically increasing inequality, the one factor is without question the media, which obscures the massive gains among the wealthy, emphasizes false tales of bootstrap "individualism" as they did with Donald Trump, portrays Social Security and Medicare as parasitic programs that will bring economic disaster, abets the falsehood that immigrants are the real threat to the working class American's economic security, and conveys the suspicion that our daughters second grade public school teacher is making her into a lesbian.