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Conservative coverage of Trump indictment goes apocalyptic

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The soon-to-be-unsealed indictment by New York prosecutors has dominated cable news over the past few days. And as is the case with all things Trump and all things politics, really, the story has looked and sounded different depending on which network you watch. We're going to take a closer look at how conservative media has been covering the major story and what that tells us, and there is no better person to talk to about that than NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Hey, David.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Hey, Scott.

DETROW: So you, to put it mildly, spend a lot of time paying attention to conservative media, particularly Fox News. What has the coverage been like over the past few days since this news first broke?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, there's been a lot of outrage. There's been a lot of really not looking at the underlying facts of the case or the grappling with the fact that Trump clearly has engaged in all kinds of behavior, both in this instance and prior, that, at minimum, deserve legal scrutiny. You know, I got to say, to be fair to right-wing media, there's been a lot of speculation, but there's been a lot of speculation throughout the press because we really don't know very much about what's in the indictments yet at all.

But I think it's fair to say that it's gotten kind of apocalyptic. You know, you've seen people claim on Newsmax that there was a constitutional crisis. You've seen people on Fox News talk about this being somehow a third-world country by holding major former public officials - in this case, a former president - accountable. You've seen people comparing it to Stalinist Russia. You've seen this be called basically the triumph of politics over any sense of prosecutorial discretion. And so you've seen fairly extreme rhetoric in the absence of any facts to evaluate them by.

DETROW: Yeah. And let's focus in on Fox here for a moment. It's been under a lot of scrutiny lately for its role in promoting Trump's lies that he did not lose the 2020 election. Post-January 6, the network had kept its distance from Trump, relatively speaking. What has their coverage in particular been like since this news broke?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, in some ways, this is the sweet spot for Fox, right? They've been trying very hard to turn Trump into a non-person, in the words of Rupert Murdoch that came out in some of his private correspondence lately. And what they get to do is be anti-Trump. You know, privately, Tucker Carlson has talked about how much he hates Donald Trump. What he's doing now is talking how much the Democrats - how much the prosecutors hate Donald Trump, and it distances himself from that. And what's more, I want to play a little clip of Tucker Carlson, what he told viewers on Fox News, because it gives insight into another angle of rhetoric.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUCKER CARLSON: Because this is too great an assault on our system, much greater than anything we saw on January 6.

FOLKENFLIK: So you heard Tucker Carlson saying it's worse than January 6 itself. So what he gets to do is not defend January 6. He gets to attack the Democrats, through the person of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, as being worse than the people who participated in the riots and the insurrection at the Capitol.

DETROW: A lot of the things you were just saying are things that we have learned because of this major defamation lawsuit that Fox is facing from Dominion Voting Systems. It's hard to have any conversation about Fox and Trump without talking about that. And Fox suffered a significant setback in court on Friday. What happened?

FOLKENFLIK: There is this defamation suit by Dominion Voting Systems, an election tech company. They allege that they were defamed by Fox News in these claims, repeatedly done after the election in 2020, that they had shifted votes from then-President Donald Trump over to Joe Biden. And the judge said, look, Dominion has proven that these statements are just simply false, and it's basically proven they were defamatory. And the question is whether Fox should be held liable for that. And they basically rejected this argument. Fox is just saying, look, we're just replaying allegations from very newsworthy people like the then-president of the United States is, his lawyers - that Dominion did this to him. You know, we're just being reporters here, and the judge says that's not good enough. This clearly is defamatory, and then we've got to head to trial.

DETROW: If Fox can't make that claim, though, what defense does it have when this does go to trial?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, it's invoking First Amendment principles. And it's saying - essentially, it's making a larger case publicly that if Fox were to lose this, this is going to harm all kinds of media outlets, including the - NPR's The World, The New York Times' The World and local newspapers as well. What they are arguing is they weren't culpable because Dominion has yet to prove what's called an actual malice standard, and that is that Fox hosts and stars and other people knowingly invited people on and affirmed statements knowing the facts to be untrue. The problem for Fox right now is that a whole lot of evidence has already become public as a result of this trial, suggesting there were a ton of people, from top to bottom of Fox, that did know that these allegations were not true. And that's part of the legacy Fox is dealing with, both on the air and in court.

DETROW: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.