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Journalism teacher on Rupert Murdoch: No standardized requirements

Journalism teacher on Rupert Murdoch: No standardized requirements

Headlines from early March 2023 imply Fox News mogul Rupert Murdoch had made a damning confession. He had claimed that some of his most prominent reporters were reporting that the 2020 presidential election was a fraud – even though they knew they were spreading a lie.

It was an admission during pretrial testimony in a defamation lawsuit brought against Fox by a voting machine company that claims it was defamed by lying. For practitioners and journalism enthusiasts, admission should signal the end of the Fox News empire.

No. This was not the case.

Such a shameful demise would seem inevitable when journalists – professionally trained truth collectors employed by a news agency, which is an institution that exists to provide truthful information – choose not to.


That’s because a business called a news agency doesn’t have to be one, but it has to be a business. Businesses exist primarily to make profit and making real news is not essential. Adam Server, report for Atlanticwrote “sources at Fox have told me not to consider it a network per se, but a profit machine.”

News companies or for-profit machines can hire anyone who falls off a truckload of turnips and call them journalists because the job has no standardized requirements.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics lists “None” as requirements for work experience and on-the-job training for journalists, but indicates that a bachelor’s degree is typical. As a result, Fox News businessmen might choose to spread election lies and insist, as court documents show, that it was smart to do so because much of their audience didn’t want to. not know the truth about this.

These are some of the troubling findings of Murdoch’s defense of his news business against a libel suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems, the company implicated in Fox’s election fraud allegations. Fox essentially admits to posting false information about Dominion, but argues that he is nonetheless shielded from liability. This is a defense based on First Amendmentwhich protects the freedom of the press so firmly that it also protects the irresponsible use of this freedom.

There is lying… and there is defamation

Murdoch’s confession was contained in court documents and was revealed in a story from the New York Times published March 7, 2023. The story focused on the US$1.6 billion libel lawsuit filed against Fox News by Dominion, Fox’s reporters repeatedly – and wrongly – accused of rigging the 2020 presidential election to make Donald Trump lose.

Internal Fox communications, reported by The New York Times, revealed that network reporters and their news executives knew the 2020 election was not fraudulent, but continued to allow lies to be spread about the election – as told by the hosts and their guests – to the public. .

Dominion claimed Fox audiences backed off when its reporters truthfully reported that Trump had lost the election. Dominion’s attorneys claimed Fox feared the public would switch viewing allegiances to the new, conservative news organizations Newsmax and One America News.

In a March 31, 2023 decision, the judge hearing the case cited examples of internal Fox communications that demonstrated how the values ​​of journalism have been supplanted by the company language and values. Among them was this quote attributed to a Fox Corporation board member: “If the ratings go down, income goes down.” The judge also mentioned Dominion Claim that Fox chose to publish the (false) claims to win back viewers.

Court documents show Dominion lawyers asked Murdoch, “What should be the consequences when Fox News executives knowingly allow lies to be broadcast?” Murdoch replied, “They should be reprimanded, maybe get rid of.”

This answer corresponds to principles widely touted by professional news agencies and established in the ethical practice journalism. Although academics and journalism practitioners vary in their definitions of what a the press organization is And who can claim to be a journalisteveryone agrees that reporting facts, or at least trying to do so in good faith, is an indispensable mandate for both of them.

Yet Murdoch has not indicated his intention to impose mass penalties on Fox News employees who violate this ethical principle. Nor is he required to do so.

Even the Society of Professional Journalists, the national organization first lawyer for ethical journalism, reject the punishments for those who violate its principles. Its code of ethics says in part: “The code is entirely voluntary. … It has no enforcement provisions or penalties for violation, and the SPJ strongly advises against anyone attempting to use it in this way. The organization admits that the media can discipline their own journalists. Since journalists and their employers can be considered a single entity, any disciplinary action is voluntary self-discipline. Neither journalists nor the news agencies they impersonate should tell the truth unless they want to.

Lying in the press is unethical but does not necessarily deprive liars of protections provided by the first amendment. There is one exception to this: the defamatory lie, which damages the reputation of a person or organization. That’s what prompted Fox News to sue.

Assumptions fall

Murdoch’s startling statements came to light in the trial because his lawyers sought what is called a “summary judgmentby the judge to decide the case without a trial, to avoid the prospect of facing a jury. This decision makes sense given that some lawyers found that juries rule against media defendants three out of four times.

By the lawsummary judgment is available only when the parties agree on the material facts of the case.

This meant that Fox and Murdoch had to admit Dominion’s most damning allegations, including admitting to broadcasting false statements and engaging in other unethical journalistic practices. Even with these admissions, the First Amendment protection could still give Fox a chance to win the case – especially if a jury doesn’t hear the case.

Without reaching a trial or verdict, the Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox News has already produced disturbing results. This has challenged the assumption by scholars of journalism that news organizations exist to provide the public with truthful information on the most important questions of their civic life. She has rattled the faithful of journalism who assume that good journalism is never bad for journalism business.

Neither assumption is necessarily valid at Fox or elsewhere. Anyone can claim to be a journalist, regardless of their actual function. Any company can claim to be a news agency. Irresponsible functioning in either role is largely protected by the First Amendment and is therefore optional.

Ethics imposed by independent state bar associations and state medical boards have made lawyers and professional physicians accountable before the law to ensure responsible behavior in their roles, which are considered essential to society. The ethics of journalism, which is the ethics of news organizations, is completely voluntary and can be overridden if it compromises profits.

But if the ethics violations are defamatory, a successful defamation lawsuit can impose liability with a financial cost – damages.

John C. Watson is an associate professor of journalism, American University.

This article is republished from The conversation under Creative Commons license. Read it original article.

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