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  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  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.
Mar 8 2023 at 11:56am
Have you watched CNN and MSNBC between 2016 and now? Read the NYTimes in the last 20 years? These are all propaganda machines and it’s silly to single out Fox, especially as they are the only outlier in the leftist media consensus.
Mar 8 2023 at 1:37pm
I don’t think it is silly to single out Fox, they were the ones were caught and put it in writing to make it very clear. It is a very weak argument to defend Fox by saying “other side is just as bad.” Fox is a cancer for our democracy and conservative causes. It is just republican propaganda that allows bad actors cover.
Mar 8 2023 at 1:57pm
Thomas: I never watch CNN and MSNBC, although I sometimes read their articles or follow their links on the web. I sometimes read the NYT, but I recently cancelled my online subscription. In all these, I found many defective arguments and questionable moral values, but I think nothing as bad in-your-face lying, or childish delusions, as in Trumpian fraud claims and their amplification by Fox News. You may also want to see my post “Political Economy of the Alex-Joneses.”
Mar 8 2023 at 2:03pm
“I never watch CNN and MSNBC”
Never is a strong word, you absolutely should see it at least occasionally, indeed also Fox and BBC and DW and AlJazeera, RT as well….
And just as an aside I regularly go to CNBC.com and yes, one should also go to WSJ and FT…..
…and naturally EconLib!
Mar 8 2023 at 12:26pm
I believe many at least initially were persuaded that there MIGHT be a case for real investigation of election fraud by the Navarro Report. Peter Navarro, a professor at the University of California, and holder of many important administrative posts in government, made the case that a thorough, impartial investigation was needed and the instant denial of any plausibility of fraud by the media was unwarranted.
I obviously was persuaded enough to air the report in an article:
When asked to testify before Congress, Navarro refused on the grounds of executive privilege. Inevitably, Congress responded with contempt of Congress charges (legal contempt not the contempt most Americans have for Congress) and he has been convicted. At last report, he was fighting his prison sentence.
Mar 8 2023 at 2:58pm
Walter: Thanks for the link to your article of January 21, 2021. We all make errors, of course, and I won’t cast the first stone. We should endeavor not to be close-minded about very improbable events—like, say, the opposition stealing an election in a decentralized, non-banana-republic country with a multitude of honest local officials and severe electoral-interference laws (which Trump may now get a taste of). Since January 2021, “the Cracken” was released many times, and dismissed by several judges, including some nominated by Trump. My criticism of your article would be that Navarro already had, in my opinion, zero credibility: see my “Peter Navarro’s Conversion,” Regulation 41:3 (Fall 2018), pp. 36-43.
Mar 8 2023 at 3:34pm
We should endeavor not to be close-minded about very improbable events—like, say, the opposition stealing an election in a decentralized, non-banana-republic country with a multitude of honest local officials and severe electoral-interference laws (which Trump may now get a taste of).”
The CIA clearly has the ability to do this. Its their specialty.
“Since January 2021, “the Cracken” was released many times,”
I think they spelled that with a K….
“and dismissed by several judges”
You mean the government, right? I found that very peculiar actually because in every single case where I have represented the defendant I will file a motion to dismiss and that motion will be denied. I have won zero MTDs in my life. None, and I never expect to either and the reason is that the standard to prevail at the MTD is that the judge is supposed to assume that all of the averments of the non-moving party (usually the plaintiff of course, but obviously a defendant can bring a counterclaim) are true and the judge can only rule in favor of the moving party if the moving party would win, as a matter of law, even if everything the non-moving party avers is true or fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.
There was no discovery, Trump was not in possession of the evidence.
“My criticism of your article would be that Navarro already had, in my opinion, zero credibility”
THAT is rational because yes, one can give weight, or not, to Navarro’s “testimony” based on his perceived bias which I would concede would be pro-Trump, ie he is not in a position to pronounce truth.
So much in the same way that you give little weight to Navarro’s opinions on the matter, I give no weight to any government agency or process purporting to opine on the government’s legitimacy. I just assume that the government will endeavor to bolsters its own legitimacy.
I hate to break the news to people but as long as the federal government exists the American people will not know peace and I can point to my entire lifetime as the proof.
Garbage people in garbage institutions. #nationaldivorce
Mar 8 2023 at 4:13pm
Walter: The claims Navarro made in his report were, if not debunked, at least viewed critically by the Washington Examiner (which is not exactly a lefty publication): Peter Navarro’s third election fraud report riddled with dubious claims | Washington Examiner (Jan 14, 2021, a couple of days before your report if I’m not mistaken)
About a month later, several researchers from U Chicago and Stanford/Hoover (again, not exactly New School types) examined the claims of large irregularities and concluded that they were mostly false: No evidence for systematic voter fraud: A guide to statistical claims about the 2020 election | PNAS
Mar 8 2023 at 6:16pm
Peter Navarro is on the record stating that “my job…is to provide the analytics that confirm [Trump’s] intuition.” Why should anyone have been persuaded by a man that open about his dishonesty?
Mar 8 2023 at 1:50pm
Methinks thou doth protest too much.
The mere appearance of impropriety is enough to sully the legitimacy of an election. Fact is no matter how much you want to countenance the results from 2020 or 2022, both of which were conducted in a way that looked absolutely awful, well, you can see innumerable Democrats forecasting how the ‘Red Mirage’ would look, and they knew beforehand that the mode of election was going to, at minimum, look bad.
“not interested in the truth”
Well, if I’m wrong and it costs us the Republic, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. #nationaldivorce
Its an ethereal era.
Mar 8 2023 at 3:05pm
Craig: We knew, didn’t we, how there could be “appearance of impropriety” both at the 2016 and the 2020 election? Before both elections, once as the challenger and once as the incumbent, Trump had warned that he would only accept the result if he won.
Mar 8 2023 at 2:06pm
Did every columnist and talking head in the openly left wing media and all the politicians who proclaimed it, really believe that the 2016 election was “rigged by the Russians” and Trump was therefore an “illegitimate president” as they all confidently asserted? Did they all believe that the summer of violent riots were “mostly peaceful” as the CNN reporter classically reported as he stood in front of a firebombed building? Believe that Fetterman was not only completely competent but a fashion icon as the NY Times gushed? Whatever was or wasn’t true about 2020, it was also not “the most fraud-free election in history” as they also claimed. It’s not that “two wrongs make a right” but rather that two wrongs make..two wrongs.
Mar 8 2023 at 3:23pm
Walt: It is much more dangerous, though, when wackos claim to defend liberty, as when Alex Jones’s company is called “Free Speech Systems.” I find it more important to criticize wackos who claim to be defending liberty.
Mar 8 2023 at 3:34pm
We all know that the term “wacko” will never be extended to include any dissenter. I mean it’s not like a lot of people already think you yourself are a wacko? I mean you invoke James M. Buchanan quite a lot and there is a campaign to brand him a racist which would make you a wacko for defending him.
Mar 8 2023 at 3:44pm
“there is a campaign to brand him a racist”
The left seems to do this of course. The #TDS is now slowly converting to #DDS and allegations that DeSantis is converting FL into a fascist state and turning Reedy Creek into Auschwitz.
Mar 8 2023 at 4:27pm
Also considering how authoritarian regimes always try to make dissent social suicide this means that in authoritarian societies supporters of freedom will be forced into the fringes the of society and will have to associate with some strange people. Czechslovakian dissidents got heavily associated with youth rebellion including things like growing their hair long for example. Chinese dissidents are not exactly pillars of the community.
The fact that you are worried that supporters of liberty are getting lumped in with “wackos” either because of your dislike of the “wackos” or you are worried about social shaming shows that liberty is indeed in peril.
Richard W Fulmer
Mar 8 2023 at 2:09pm
Can the poor state of journalism in this country be chalked up to market failure? Is the free market creating incentives for private firms and individuals to act in ways that lead to negative results?
The current problems are fostering demands for government “solutions” that will likely make things worse.
Market failures often create entrepreneurial opportunities. Are market correctives possible in this case? If so, what form might they take?
Mar 8 2023 at 3:17pm
Richard: All good questions! A market failure is, in the case under discussion, the non-production or underproduction of something that some consumers are willing to pay for. True information is produced: you find it in the Economist, the Financial Times, and the Wall Street Journal, even if the underlying values are often questionable. The problem I raised is that there is relatively little demand for it. The US is not the worst case: in many countries, the demand for true information is even lower.
Mar 8 2023 at 3:47pm
The problem with MSM and its relationship with the government is that the press turns into a ramora. To report on the government makes on ultimately dependent on the government as a source of information to report on. One needs to be selective about biting the very hand that feeds you.
“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”
Well, maybe now its still a GREEN issue and he doesn’t need to antagonize Biden to this degree.
Mar 8 2023 at 6:26pm
I agree with Pierre. You raise excellent and challenging questions.
On the demand side of things, there is demand for comforting half-truths and lies (as Murdoch notes). Both the Left and the Right love their conspiracy theories.
But we also have issues on the supply side of things. As the Twitter files reveal, there has been very close collaboration (intimidation?) between government and various news outlets. “Fact checking” has become weaponized as a means to crush competition and even the idea of a “Disinformation Board” has a chilling effect. There appears to be a lot of regulatory capture. In other words, I do not think there is as much competition in the news media as one might think.
So, is there a market failure? I don’t think so, at least not in a strict sense of the term. But there certainly is a failure going on because all the big media companies (including Fox) appear to love being lapdogs to those in power and they are using that relationship to crush competition.
Mar 8 2023 at 2:46pm
The classical liberals (with few exceptions) explicitly supported the state-run religious propaganda that was the public school system and are shocked that this led to state-run propaganda.
Also the classical liberals took it as a given that any non-aristocratic non-Catholic educated person must be a liberal since that appeared to be the case in the 19th Century. They didn’t expect our current class of wealthy university-educated urbanites to reject liberalism.
Mar 8 2023 at 3:12pm
Oh and need I remind you that Richard Cobden and John Bright did not attend university while the protectionist leader Lord Derby was an Oxford grad? And how John Bright and Herbert Spencer could not go to Oxford and Cambridge anyway because they were Quakers?
Mar 8 2023 at 3:28pm
Laurentian: That’s a good point! I would listen if Cobden, Bright, or Spencer (or contemporary incarnations of them) argued that the Alex Jones has an important message to convey and that Trump is a (protectionist) genius and his red tide was stolen.
Thomas Lee Hutcheson
Mar 8 2023 at 3:27pm
Trying to get news from TV, essentially an entertainment medium, is a category mistake.
Richard W Fulmer
Mar 8 2023 at 4:30pm
Mar 8 2023 at 9:13pm
That’s right. … Brought to you by Pfizer!
Mar 8 2023 at 10:44pm
This sounds Public Choice Theory-ish to me.
Hypothesis: Media makes money by being popular. And there are many more popular messages than truth. Thus, telling truth is akin to engaging in racism: Firms can engage in it provided competition isn’t too fierce—but as competition increases, firms must jettison everything that isn’t related to meeting customer demand. A sports team can pick players based on race until they realize that they’re going to be trounced by all the teams that pick players based on skill—and a media company can invest in telling truth until they realize that they’re going to be trounced by firms that tell stories more popular than truth.
Can we test the hypothesis that embrace of falsehoods was less common, or public education was better, in the past? Or is this just an example of Bryan Caplan’s “pessimism bias”? I may not know about the extent of problems people faced in the past, but my absence of knowledge does not equal knowledge of absence. And if I have to make any assumption about the past, I start from the assumption that human dynamics and human institutions remain fairly constant over time.