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What got me steamed up this week

First Alex Jones, and Now Fox News—Connect the Dots, People

Gee, how come we don’t see liberal media outlets paying huge settlements in defamation lawsuits?

The legal team representing Fox News
Alex Wong/Getty Images
The legal team representing Fox News on April 18

Last October, jurors in Connecticut ordered Alex Jones to pay nearly $1 billion to the families of the children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The next month, a judge added another nearly $500 million in various fees. It was described at the time as the largest known defamation award at trial in the history of the United States.

This week, as we know, Fox News settled with Dominion Voting systems for $787.5 million.* This has been described as the largest known defamation settlement in the history of the United States.

Do we see a pattern here, folks? Fox News is the largest right-wing propaganda network in the country. Alex Jones’s Infowars, which includes a website and loads of streamed videos, is not nearly as large as Fox. But it is a “media organization,” or at least gets to act like one under the agreed-upon rules, and it too reaches a hefty audience (around 16 million visitors a month to the website, according to one site I looked at). Indeed Jones, after the 2021 death of Rush Limbaugh but before the defamation award, might have made a plausible claim to being the single most influential voice on the far right (although maybe Tucker Carlson overtook him somewhere in that time frame).

However you rank them, the plain truth is that Alex Jones and Fox News are vastly influential right-wing “media” voices. And now one has been assigned to pay history’s largest defamation award and the other to pay history’s largest defamation settlement.

This is not a coincidence. This is how they roll. Lying is what these people do. Why? A few reasons. Money, mostly, as the Fox-Dominion depositions showed (“It is not red or blue, it’s green,” Rupert Murdoch said). Also, to shock and upset conventional liberal opinion (which is tied to money, of course, because the more shocking they are, the higher the ratings, and the greater the profit).

And finally, for ideological reasons. There isn’t much of an ideological angle in a comment like this one, which Jones made about a grieving parent the night after the shooting: “You know, after you lose your daughter, they put you on some antidepressants or something, but I thought those take a month to kick in. I mean, it’s like a look of absolute satisfaction, like he’s about to accept an Oscar.” But remember that Jones also said this: “Why did Hitler blow up the Reichstag—to get control! Why do governments stage these things—to get our guns! Why can’t people get that through their head?” That’s a clear ideological defense of his lies.

The record would seem to indicate that Fox executives and anchors had no ideological motivation, because said record suggests that they knew Donald Trump was lying about the 2020 election. But their choice to go along with the Big Lie was partly an ideological choice too, and for this reason: They understood the stakes of going along with the lie. They knew very well that if Trump got his way, and states tried to put in substitute slates of electors or Mike Pence refused to certify the electoral votes on January 6, 2021, that would have been the end of more than 240 consecutive years of democratic rule in the U.S. The end! And they went along. It was driven by ratings in the first instance—which is hardly an excuse, by the way—but it was also revealing of the ideology of the place, where democracy takes a distant second to power.

They lie. They lie all the time about practically everything. It’s a strategy. Turn reality on its head. Invert every question. Cherry-pick evidence. Here’s a comparatively benign, wonky example. There’s a recent book out called The Myth of Inequality, co-written by former Senator Phil Gramm, which argues that inequality has shrunk, not increased, over recent decades. One chief claim in the book is that the way we measure inequality doesn’t count transfers of “wealth” to poor people like Medicare and Medicaid. Well … it’s true to some extent that these are resources that are transferred to poorer Americans—but mainly if they get sick! TNR’s Tim Noah demolished this argument last fall, writing: “By Gramm’s logic, the sicker you get, the richer you become.” Gramm and his co-authors also wrote—for real—that Ebenezer Scrooge is misunderstood.

That, as I said, is a more quotidian example of the way they lie, but its very quotidian-ness makes my point: They lie about virtually everything, because reality is at odds with their worldview. Sometimes those lies are merely insidious, with horrible consequences for policymaking and society (that inequality is shrinking; that charter schools do better than public schools). But other times, the lies are vicious and unspeakable, with potentially tragic consequences for society. And they don’t care.

Meanwhile … where are the massive defamation lawsuits against MSNBC, HuffPost, and the like? Funny thing. They don’t exist. It’s not that these outlets, and other mainstream and liberal ones, have never been sued. Everybody makes errors, sometimes fairly bad ones. But we—both the avowedly liberal media and the mainstream media—don’t lie as a strategy. And the right is reduced to trying to catch the mainstream media in lies by … in essence, lying—i.e., sending people like James O’Keefe out to try to dupe people and get them to admit certain things and heavily edit the resulting conversations.

They’ve been lying for years. Reality was bound to catch up. But they still are able to use the cover of the First Amendment to lie—to help destroy, paradoxically, the very democracy that the First Amendment was written to sustain. There is much more to be done to rein them in. Go, Smartmatic.

* This article originally misstated the amount for which Fox settled.

It’s Simple: The Senate Judiciary Committee Must Subpoena Clarence Thomas Now

What are you prepared to do, Democrats?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Remember that great early scene from The Untouchables? Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) and Officer Malone (Sean Connery) are sitting in a church. Ness says he wants to get Capone. Malone (Sean Connery) responds: “What are you prepared to do?” It’s a simple but emotionally powerful scene.

Malone goes on to recommend certain extralegal courses of action that I hasten to point out I do not endorse in the current instance, but: We now know, thanks to the heroic trio at ProPublica (Justin Elliott, Joshua Kaplan, and Alex Mierjeski) that Clarence Thomas violated the law. Their earlier reporting on Thomas from two weeks ago was stunning enough, about all the trips and gifts Thomas accepted from megadonor Harlan “Hey, they’re just World War II souvenirs!” Crow. But even that jaw-dropping report had to be qualified: Crow’s “apparent” gifts to Thomas, whose failure to disclose them “appears” to violate the law.

Now there is little such ambiguity. Crow bought a house Thomas owned in Savannah, Georgia, in 2014 for $133,000. A federal law passed after Watergate requires officials—including Supreme Court justices—to disclose the details of most real estate transactions worth more than $1,000. There is an exception in the law for primary residences, but that doesn’t apply here—Thomas didn’t live there, and neither did his wife. The law says Thomas was required to provide “a brief description, the date, and category of value of any purchase, sale or exchange during the preceding calendar year which exceeds $1,000.” He did not.

As responsible journalists and not lawyers, ProPublica’s reporters don’t say outright that it’s a violation of law. But they quote legal experts who do say so. “He needed to report his interest in the sale,” said Virginia Canter, a former government ethics lawyer now at the watchdog group CREW. Interestingly, Thomas filed a disclosure for 2014 that, ProPublica reports, got rather specific: “Thomas’ financial disclosure for that year is detailed, listing everything from a ‘stained glass medallion’ he received from Yale to a life insurance policy. But he failed to report his sale to Crow.”

Hmmm. Why would that be?

It’s hard to imagine a legitimate excuse. A major donor who’d been giving Clarence and Ginni Thomas lavish gifts for years finally went so far as to purchase a house he owned (Thomas shared ownership with his brother and mother). Thomas obviously made money from the sale. He didn’t disclose it. Obviously, the intent of the law is for the public to know about such matters. Thomas decided the public had a right to know about his stained-glass medallion but not this house.

This brings us to the Democrats.

Earlier this week, I wrote in response to ProPublica’s first report that the Democrats need to destroy Thomas’s reputation by holding hearings on his dealings, which of course is something they’ve never done. “Have a long hearing that lays bare every instance of his and his wife’s corrupt activities in a high-profile venue that Americans will watch,” I wrote. “Make the case to swing-voting Americans that he is dishonoring the court’s name and reputation; drive his approval ratings into the toilet (in a 2022 YouGov poll, Thomas already had the highest ‘very unfavorable’ rating of the nine justices, at 32 percent); and force the Republican senators to vote to keep this clearly undeserving, mediocre, arrogant, unscrupulous hornswoggler on the court.”

Now the case for action is even clearer. But action by whom? There’s only one serious contender: the Senate Judiciary Committee. It’s controlled by the Democrats, and they can do whatever they are prepared to do. But what exactly is that?

Last Monday, after the first ProPublica report, committee Chairman Dick Durbin vowed that the committee “will act.” He did not elaborate on that. Later, he urged Chief Justice John Roberts to investigate Thomas. Then I saw on cable news Thursday night (I can’t find anything online Friday morning) that he called on Merrick Garland to do something.

Mr. Chairman: Stop tossing the football around. You have a gavel, and you have subpoena power. Subpoena Clarence Thomas. Next week.

What? Horrors! Subpoena a Supreme Court justice? Can that even be done?

Yes. Congress can subpoena anybody it wants to. In fact, it has been done, at least once. In 1953, the House Un-American Activities Committee subpoenaed Associate Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark, who had been Harry Truman’s attorney general. It also subpoenaed James Byrnes, who had been Truman’s secretary of state—and Truman himself! This was all prompted by charges leveled by Herbert Brownell, Dwight Eisenhower’s attorney general, that Truman had knowingly as president appointed a Russian spy to an International Monetary Fund position (this was the economist Harry Dexter White; the general historical verdict is that White did pass some classified information to the Soviet Union but was not a Communist or Marxist dedicated to Soviet triumph in the Philby-Burgess sense).

None of them ever appeared before the committee, and sure, HUAC does not represent one of our country’s proudest moments by a long shot. I admit that gives me a moment’s pause. But we are not in the middle of a Red Scare here. There is no witch hunt taking place of prominent right-wingers (well, if you live on normal Earth, there’s not). No careers are being destroyed. All we have here is a man, one man, one very corrupt man, who is supposed to be one of this nation’s nine most preeminent lawgivers but who clearly thinks he is above the law.

And this returns us to Malone. Senator Durbin: What are you prepared to do?