Nicholas Kristof: Can we put Fox News on trial with Donald Trump?

Even if you don’t watch Fox News, you still subsidize it with your cable subscription.

As America debates whether to hold former President Donald Trump accountable for inciting insurrection, what about his co-conspirator Fox News?

Fox helped sell Trump’s lie about a stolen election, propelling true believers like Ashli Babbitt — a fan of Fox personalities like Tucker Carlson — to storm the Capitol. Babbitt died in the attack, while this week Fox Corp. merrily reported a 17% jump in quarterly earnings.

“The Fox News Channel finished the quarter with its highest average ratings,” Lachlan Murdoch, Fox’s CEO, boasted in a call with financial analysts.

We can’t impeach Fox or put Carlson or Sean Hannity on trial in the Senate, but there are steps we can take — imperfect, inadequate ones, resting on slippery slopes — to create accountability not only for Trump but also for fellow travelers at Fox, OANN, Newsmax and so on.

That can mean pressure on advertisers to avoid underwriting extremists (of any political bent), but the Fox News business model depends not so much on advertising as on cable subscription fees. So a second step is to call on cable companies to drop Fox News from basic cable TV packages.

The issue here is that if you’re like many Americans, you: A) don’t watch Fox News, and A) still subsidize Fox News.

If you buy a basic cable package, you’re forced to pay about $20 a year for Fox News. You may deplore bigots and promoters of insurrection, but you help pay their salaries.

Angelo Carusone, president of Media Matters for America, says that Fox News relies on unusually generous cable fees — more than twice what CNN receives and five times what MSNBC commands. So Media Matters started a campaign, at unfoxmycablebox.com, for people to ask cable carriers to drop Fox News from their packages.

“Given all the damage that Fox News has caused and the threat that it remains, they absolutely should unbundle Fox News,” Carusone told me. “It’s not a news channel. It’s a propaganda operation mixed with political smut. If people want that, they should be forced to pay for it the way that they pay for Cinemax.”

Frankly, my argument leaves even me a bit queasy. I deeply believe in the “marketplace of ideas,” and I do think that there is a danger of a liberal monoculture in some universities, nonprofits and news organizations. I’ve railed against “liberal intolerance,” and I don’t think the “cancel culture” that conservatives decry is entirely a mirage.

Defamation lawsuits by election technology companies may have led Fox to cancel “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on Fox Business Network and may have reined in Newsmax and OANN a bit. But before we start applauding too enthusiastically, let’s remember that fear of such defamation lawsuits may also have allowed Harvey Weinstein and other #MeToo predators to escape accountability for years.

Conservatives are likewise right that The New York Times, CNN and other mainstream news organizations make mistakes all the time, and surely right-wingers are unhappy that their cable fees subsidize Rachel Maddow.

But there’s no symmetry. Fox News and Fox Business didn’t make an honest mistake about election outcomes but deliberately spun nonsense into ratings gold.

“During 2020, Fox News’ caldron of lies and extremism boiled over,” Carusone said. “They made us sicker and put up obstacles to the pandemic response by flooding the airwaves with over 13,150 instances of COVID misinformation. They fomented racial animus and promoted white supremacy as a response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. And, in the first two weeks after the election was called for Joe Biden, Fox News laid the groundwork for the attack on the Capitol by challenging the results on 774 individual instances with wild conspiracies and flat-out fabrications.”

In other words, the problem with Fox isn’t that it’s conservative but that it monetizes conspiracy theories and disinformation in ways that are sometimes lethal. Researchers have found, for example, that places where Fox News is randomly assigned a lower channel number (and thus gets more viewers) had riskier behavior during the pandemic, and that media markets where Hannity is particular popular had higher COVID-19 death rates early in the pandemic.

Suppose Discovery Channel went haywire and encouraged viewers to drink arsenic to lose weight? Or Cartoon Network was bought by a tobacco company and encouraged children to try smoking? Or MSNBC pundits called on viewers to burn down police stations?

We would agree that advertisers should not support their programs and that cable channels should not force Americans to subsidize them. In other words, we accept that there must be red lines even if we don’t always agree where to draw them — and I believe that Fox crossed those lines in 2020.

I hope Fox returns from the Land of Make Believe to its conservative roots, for America would benefit from a reliable right-wing TV news source. As Tucker Carlson said at CPAC in 2009: “The New York Times is a liberal paper, … but it’s also a paper that actually cares about accuracy. … Conservatives need to mimic that in their own news organizations.”

He was right … then.

Nicholas D. Kristof | The New York Times (CREDIT: Damon Winter/The New York Times)

Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.