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Did America’s No. 1 News Network Lie?
Plus: The ramifications of Elon Musk and Larry Page's late-night arguments over artificial intelligence and how the Trump-DeSantis feud is finally heating up.
Did America’s No. 1 News Network Lie?
In a word, the answer is yes. But was it acting with malice? That’s a bit more complicated.
America’s top-rated television network, Fox News, in an 11th-hour move to dodge what would have been an embarrassing show trial, settled its defamation case with Dominion Voting Systems for $787.5 million – less than half the amount it was sued for – while admitting some of the claims it reported about Dominion were “false.” The settlement came late Tuesday just after the jury was sworn in.
The deal has been years in the making, with a lot of big names at Fox – Tucker Carlson, Maria Bartiromo, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and their 92-year-old boss, Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of Fox’s parent company New Corp. – in the crosshairs.
Dominion Voting Systems, which is majority-owned by a $900 million private equity firm based in New York called Staple Street Capital, sued Fox in a $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit accusing the television network of relentlessly airing false election-fraud stories and repeatedly suggesting Dominion’s voting machines were to blame. Opening arguments were set to begin on the case this week.
In a weird way, this moment is slightly redolent of the takedown of the online news and gossip site Gawker Media in 2016. Not because the details of the cases are at all similar, but because, like Gawker, plenty of journalists look down their noses at Fox, yet didn’t want to see it gutted, as it would have had massive implications for press freedoms (very fashionably always under attack), first amendment rights and journalism everywhere.
In the Gawker case, billionaire Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel secretly funded pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s case against Gawker when the media company published a video of Hogan having sex with his best friend’s wife.
Aside from the fact that publishing the video was utterly lurid and had zero news value, it was unclear what posting it added to the world. It brought no insight or deeper understanding to a general news audience. So why was it published? This was the question on many journalists’ minds at the time, even as they did not wish to see a fellow news organization get destroyed and bankrupted – which ultimately is what happened.
The trial of Gawker weighed the right to privacy against press freedoms and, because of that, the entire undertaking effectively put the press on trial. The jury found Gawker had violated Hogan’s right to privacy and that he’d suffered emotional distress.
Perhaps the greatest sin of it all was that the video itself had no real meaning, except maybe to the people in it, and did not appear to meet any reasonable standard of public interest (unless you want to count salacious interest). In the end, it seemed senseless and bizarre to publish it. Also senseless for so many journalists to lose their jobs in the fallout.
In the case against Fox News, the stakes were even higher. All journalists’ press freedoms hung in the balance. The decision by Fox to run with the notion that the 2020 presidential election was rigged – and keep the story going for months afterward without any evidence – not only once again tested the outer limits of press freedoms, but inevitably caused many to question whether some journalists have completely lost the plot.
The private text messages of Fox anchors and executives, subpoenaed and released in the run-up to the trial, prompted even hardened news veterans to shake their heads in disbelief. The internal communications showed that even Fox’s top brass felt increasingly uncomfortable with the election-fraud allegations and, notably, wondered if it had any leg to stand on. It also revealed a culture inside Fox that openly sought to manipulate the perceptions of its conservative audiences to boost ratings, particularly in appearing to support former president Donald J. Trump, when it in fact did not.
In the texts, Fox anchor Tucker Carlson, speaking of Trump, wrote: “I hate him passionately…What he’s good at is destroying things. He’s the undisputed world champion of that.” Carlson also noted that Fox was knowingly interviewing sources on air it knew to be lying to viewers about the election, adding, “it’s insane.”
Rupert Murdoch, writing to Fox’s CEO, mused that perhaps the network’s claims of election fraud were not such a great idea, saying of Fox anchors, “Maybe Sean [Hannity] and Laura [Ingraham] went too far.”
Murdoch also made it clear what he really thought of Trump in another pointed internal note. “Trump insisting on the election being stolen and convincing 25 percent of Americans was a huge disservice to the country,” he wrote, even as Fox kept pushing the election-fraud stories. “Pretty much a crime. Inevitable it blew up Jan. 6th. Best we don’t mention his name unless essential and certainly don’t support him.”
That admission by Murdoch appeared to show that, as a network, Fox believed the election-fraud story was a lie, and it went all the way to the top. Still, Fox anchors continued to air allegations of vote-rigging, voter irregularities, vote-flipping and computer glitches, implicating Dominion and calling for a systemwide audit even after the 2020 election was over.
In its defense, Fox sought to portray its reporting as an attempt to cover what it saw as newsworthy allegations about the election in the public interest. It also held that its broadcasts and commentary were protected by the First Amendment.
Yet journalists learn early and often in their careers: You can quote somebody or put them on air, but if you have reason to believe that what they are saying is not true, then that’s on you. Spoken words, written words, or quotes are not tantamount to blank checks.
This is where the legal definition of “malice” comes in. It is a strong word, traditionally denoting an intention or desire to do evil, or having ill will. The legal version of it is notoriously difficult to prove, as established by the 1964 Supreme Court ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan, which propounded that defamation lawsuits brought by public figures against media companies must prove “actual malice.” In this case, the plaintiff, Dominion, needed to show the defendant, Fox, knowingly lied and either knew what it was saying was false and defamatory, or had serious doubts about what it was alleging and acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
From the start, the news network struggled to win over the judge overseeing the case, Eric Davis of the Delaware Superior Court. Davis ruled that Fox’s on-air claims suggesting Dominion rigged the vote were not true, so Dominion didn’t need to prove Fox’s allegations were demonstrably false. This week Fox also was sanctioned by the judge after he found Fox made misrepresentations to the court about Murdoch’s role as an officer at Fox News, which Dominion argued had the effect of delaying the submission of evidence about Murdoch.
In addition, Murdoch stated during a deposition that he wasn’t an officer at Fox News, which Dominion pointed out was not true. Judge Davis said he might need to appoint a special master to get to the bottom of what happened, stating, “I need people to tell me the truth…and by the way, omission is a lie.” Fox submitted a letter apologizing to the court calling the issue a “misunderstanding.”
Fox’s internal, private communications, specifically examined against what its anchors and sources were saying on air at the time, may have been the reason Dominion prevailed before the trial began. But the fact Fox dared to take it this far certainly does no favors for journalists or journalism.
Elon: Artificial Intelligence May Be the End of Civilization
An endlessly benevolent artificial intelligence is a pipe dream, he warns.
Possibly one of the most fascinating, off-the-cuff remarks made by Elon Musk, the multi-hyphenate CEO of Tesla, Twitter and SpaceX, during a wide-ranging interview aired this week, was an anecdote about his old pal, Larry Page, the co-founder of Google.
Musk said that he and Page were once close friends and the two would often whimsically debate artificial intelligence issues late into the night when he would stay at Page’s home in Palo Alto, Calif. Musk, who says he’s thought deeply about the potential of A.I. threats since he was a teenager (it is not at all hard to imagine a surly, pubescent Elon stewing over robots), described his alarm at learning how Page seemed to be completely ambivalent to the fate of humanity when considering the possible hazards of A.I.
“At least my perception was that Larry was not taking A.I. safety seriously enough,” Musk said in a chat with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. “He really seemed to be for digital superintelligence. Basically, digital God, if you will, as soon as possible.”
Musk said he agreed with Page that A.I. had the potential to do good. “But there’s also potential for bad… it can’t just be helpful if you just go barreling forward and, you know, hope for the best.”
If A.I. is not well-regulated, tested and developed, with clear guardrails, Musk said it could be like a black hole or a “singularity” that, once unleashed, could be impossible to rein in. In tech-speak, a singularity is a hypothetical point in the future where a technological event becomes uncontrollable or irreversible, leading to unexpected or unforeseen changes to human civilization.
“It wouldn’t quite happen like ‘The Terminator,’ because the intelligence would be in data centers,” he said, referring to the 1984 Arnold Schwarzenegger film about a cyborg assassin, adding, “the robot’s just the end-effector.”
The ongoing debate with Page did not go well. Based on Musk’s account, it probably would have been better for him, Page and humanity if they’d let the A.I. topics lie. “At one point, I said, what about, you know, you gotta’ make sure humanity’s ok here,” Musk said he told Page. In response, Page “called me a specist,” he said. “And so, I was like, ok, that’s it, yes, I’m a specist ok, you got me – what are you?”
Specist is a term typically used for people who place a higher value on humans than animals but, in this instance, it was referring to A.I. For Musk, “that was the last straw.” Musk explained that at that time – it appears this was circa 2015 – Google had acquired the British artificial intelligence research lab DeepMind and amassed one of the world’s largest pools of A.I. talent, “a tremendous amount of money and more computers than anyone else, so I’m like we are in a unipolar world here where there’s one company that has close to a monopoly on A.I. talent and computers…and the person who’s in charge does not seem to care about safety; this is not good.”
This revelation led Musk to become one of the original founders of OpenAI, a San Francisco-based, artificial intelligence research lab that began as an open-source nonprofit and is behind A.I. applications such as ChatGPT.
“The reason OpenAI exists at all” is due to his arguments with Page, he says, adding that he sought to launch an organization he hoped could be the opposite of Google, which would be not-for-profit and fully transparent, “so people know what’s going on.”
Musk has since left OpenAI, which moved on to run a for-profit arm, and says he believes OpenAI engineers are now “training AI to lie.”
Late last month, Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and 1,600 others, including some of the biggest names in tech, signed a letter exhorting the world’s top artificial intelligence labs to take a break from training their powerful A.I. systems and allow more time to put safeguards in place, lest A.I. outpace human intelligence.
The letter, issued by the Future of Life Institute, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit that works to reduce catastrophic and existential risks facing humanity like those purportedly posed by A.I., insisted that “powerful A.I. systems should be developed only once we are confident that their effects will be positive and their risks will be manageable.”
The letter asked the government to pause the development of any A.I. system more powerful than the ChatGPT-4 application.
So far, the letter does not appear to have ground A.I. labs to a halt. But Musk appears bent on continuing his campaign, saying he fears that regulations won’t be put in place until “terrible things have happened.”
His efforts to create a safer environment for humans and A.I. is part of how ChatGPT came to be developed in the first place. Perhaps he feels culpable?
“We want pro-human,” he told Carlson. “Let’s make the future good for the humans. Because we’re humans.”
Even if Musk and Page turn out to be the ones to blame for the hypothetical, future killer robot wars, at least Musk is working on a self-sustaining city on Mars as an escape hatch, if it all goes awry.
DeSantis vs. Trump: The Gloves Come Off
The battle for the most puerile presidential campaign ad has begun – and it looks like there are only winners.
Who has dirty chocolate “pudding fingers” and wants to cut Medicare, Social Security and raise Americans’ age of retirement?
Who used to be a semi-deity in the Republican party and is now a potential criminal, putting the ticket in peril?
After months of circling each other in the GOP coliseum, former president Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are finally unsheathing their attack ads and making a lot of conservative voters exceedingly jittery over the rising likelihood of a messy and acrimonious primary.
In what can only be called a graphically memorable and deeply creepy ad, the Make America Great Again Inc. political action committee ran a pro-Trump spot charging, “Ron DeSantis loves sticking his fingers where they don’t belong,” depicting a man eating fudge pudding with his bare fingers and implying DeSantis would deep-six benefits for senior citizens.
The ad riffs off a rumor that DeSantis once ate pudding cups with three of his fingers instead of a spoon, a story he mostly denies. “I don’t remember ever doing that,” he said. “Maybe when I was a kid.”
Meanwhile, DeSantis’s ad, released this week just days after Trump’s by another political action committee, pokes fun at Trump for being the first criminally indicted former president to ever make a bid for the Oval Office, who is also spending millions of dollars attacking DeSantis rather than the Democrats. “Whatever happened to Donald Trump?” it asks.
The ads commence what is likely to be one of the most contentious Republican races for the nomination in history, with one poll this week showing DeSantis beginning to edge out Trump in key battleground states.
While Trump is still seen as the Republican front-runner, the recent survey shows DeSantis would potentially win more votes than President Biden in Pennsylvania by 45 percent to 42 percent and Arizona by 48 percent to 42 percent in a 2024 faceoff.
The poll, which assessed 500 registered voters in Pennsylvania and Arizona, indicated Trump would lose to Biden in those states if he was the nominee.
Not to be outdone, the Trump War Room on Twitter blasted the survey, calling it a “fake poll” with unreliable data and “Truly a POS poll.”
Glad to see everyone is keeping it classy.