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Fox News, the U.S. cable network loathed and loved for its bombastic, conservative commentary on current events, is under siege. Emails, texts and other material from the Dominion Voting Systems defamation suit disclosed startling revelations about this popular but polarizing television channel.
Rupert Murdoch, chairman of Fox Corporation and executive chair of its parent company, News Corp., confessed that Fox’s on-air personalities may have “gone too far” in publicly endorsing the disproven belief that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Trump, while privately communicating the opposite.
Several Republican senators also criticized Fox primetime host Tucker Carlson for irresponsibly misrepresenting the January 6 riot as “mostly peaceful chaos” on Tucker Carlson Tonight.
And, in this incendiary context, former president Donald Trump, once a staunch ally, sharply turned on Fox over its coverage of the upcoming 2024 presidential race.
In sum, Fox News finds itself embattled on all sides, including traditional allies, even as its best-known on-air personalities have continued to broadcast falsehoods about January 6 even as a US$1.6 billion (C$2.17 billion) defamation lawsuit plays out in court.
Chronic election disinformation has troubling consequences. An Axios-Momentive poll found over 40 per cent of Americans do not believe Biden won the 2020 presidential election. More than 1,000 people have been arrested in connection with the January 6 riot on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. And traditional disagreements between Republicans and Democrats have continued devolving into even higher levels of polarizing acrimony in Congress.
Polarizing disinformation has contributed to grim political and social consequences in the United States which Canada should make every effort to avoid. Simply put, a foreign news organization like Fox News that brazenly broadcasts fabricated falsehoods does not serve Canada’s public interest.
The good news is that multiple approaches exist that could help Canada contain problematic foreign cable news outlets when they trade in deception and fail to meet basic journalistic standards.
Penalties for disinformation
The most aggressive step would be to formally penalize U.S. cable news channels broadcasting in Canada that wilfully lie, right up to removing the channel from the dial. There is precedent for removing a foreign channel, like the Russian state-owned television channel RT, from domestic Canadian airwaves.
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“Foreign channels can be removed from the authorized list should their programming not be consistent with the standards to which Canadian services are held, or their continued distribution no longer serves the public interest, as was the case for RT and RT France,” stated CRTC Chairperson and CEO Ian Scott in March 2022. If Fox News programming is deemed inconsistent with Canadian standards or opposes the public interest, it could be removed from the CRTC’s revised list of non-Canadian programming services and stations authorized for distribution.
However, removing a channel for arguably less serious or substantive reasons than in the RT case that occurred during wartime could be difficult. In RT’s case, it was found to undermine national sovereignty, demean Canadians of certain ethnic backgrounds, and undermine democratic institutions. These are serious issues and a simple lack of truthfulness may not meet the threshold for removal. CRTC spokesperson Eric Rancourt stated back in 2014, “Based on the history of these kind of [truthfulness] complaints, it would have [to] be very, very egregious for the commission (to revoke or deny a licence). That’s all speculative, since it hasn’t happened before.”
Given the global epidemic of fake news, developing a formal process of penalizing news outlets that knowingly broadcast disinformation would be a significant step in attempting to stop this spread in Canada.
Caution Canadian audiences
Viewer advisories could be displayed for Fox News’ primetime broadcasts and other broadcasters that willfully disinform. Advisories help warn audiences about issues regarding upcoming content such as nudity or violence. Viewer advisories could potentially precede Fox News’ primetime programming based on evidence from both the Dominion lawsuit and a previous case which was heard in U.S. court.
In McDougal v. Fox News Network, U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil cited the network’s own arguments in finding the “general tenor” of Tucker Carlson Tonight “should then inform a viewer that [Carlson] is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’”
Some viewers justifiably assume a channel like Fox News that has the word “News” in its name is broadcasting factual information. Advisories would inform viewers that even according to its own lawyers in the McDougal case, Fox News primetime programming is not fact-based and exaggerates.
A complaint process for revocation or viewer advisories could theoretically be started through the CRTC’s online public inquiries form. Sufficient public complaint via the CRTC could push Fox to broadcast advisories or provide an equivalent remedy.
Establish an advisory panel
Finally, a representative panel of informed Canadians and experts should periodically discuss the quality of foreign cable news. The panel could subsequently recommend appropriate measures. Panels could be inspired by the CRTC’s public consultations or hearings. By considering a broad array of Canadian viewers’ opinions, the process may also contribute to a broader conversation around faltering trust in news. Given our polluted information landscape, formally sharing viewers’ honest concerns could prove to be a good thing to clear the proverbial broadcasting air.
The Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit may end up establishing new limits for broadcasters airing allegedly defamatory content in the U.S. and serve as a cautionary tale for Canadians. Ratings incentivize sensationalistic and, in the Fox News case, deceptive programming to increase viewership. By introducing the right measures, further social corrosion such as we have witnessed in the U.S, including a continued decline of public trust, can be prevented from taking hold in Canada.