'We are not afraid of the big bad Fox': Nonprofit sues Fox News for coronavirus misinformation

Network is accused of misrepresenting and downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic

Graig Graziosi
Monday 06 April 2020 22:08 BST
Fox News hosts make light of deadly coronavirus pandemic with on-air send-up

Fox News is being sued by a Washington nonprofit that claims the television station and its parent companies and owners violated the state's Consumer Protection Act by spreading false information about the coronavirus.

The suit, filed on behalf of the Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics - WASHLITE - claims the conservative news station engaged in "unfair or deceptive" acts by misrepresenting and downplaying the seriousness of the coronavirus by suggesting that it was being politicised to hurt the president. As a result, it says, viewers failed to prepare and act in ways that could have protected them and helped slow the spread of the virus.

According to The Seattle Times, the lawsuit claims the conservative news network contributed to the "public-health crisis" and to "preventable mass death."

The suit includes AT&T and Comcast as defendants.

The attorney representing WASHLITE, Liz Hallock, said the suit was filed to keep the public safe.

"We are not trying to chill free speech here. But we believe the public was endangered by false and deceptive communications in the stream of commerce," she told the Seattle Times. "There are a lot of people who listen to Fox News and they're not taking the recommendations of public-health officials seriously. This is not about money; it's about making sure the public gets the message this is not a hoax."

The lawsuit is seeking "nominal damages" and attorneys' fees as well as an injunction to stop Fox stations from "interfering with or undermining legitimate control measures imposed within the State of Washington for the limited time period under which the pandemic is brought under control and until the pandemic is brought under control."

According to The Times of San Diego, which broke the story, the general counsel for Fox News Media said that they "will defend vigorously and seek sanctions as appropriate" and that the claims were "wrong on the facts, frivolous on the law."

The lawsuit was launched shortly after a letter signed by 80 journalism professors sent by the Columbia Journalism School criticising the network's coronavirus coverage and calling for it to stop misleading the public.

Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch have been building a legal team to defend the network in anticipation of lawsuits filed in response to the network's coronavirus coverage.

The network has already begun steeling itself against challenges; Fox Business parted ways with anchor Trish Regan after she claimed on-air that the coronavirus was a politically motivated outbreak to re-launch impeachment efforts against President Donald Trump.

Sean Hannity, arguably the network's biggest star, has spent the last two weeks walking back claims that the virus was comparable to the flu and was being overstated by Democrats to make Mr Trump look bad.

Since then, he has claimed that he always took the virus very seriously.

Arthur West, a WASHLITE board member, told The Daily Beast that they weren't intimidated by Fox News or its legal team.

"We are not afraid of the big bag Fox," he said. "I'm pretty sure they'll try something like [sanctions] because that's what bullies do."

Mr West has won some substantial battles in court against government entities. He won a $192,000 settlement in an open-meetings lawsuit against the agency that governs Washington's legalised marijuana industry and boasted to The Daily Beast that he has won "a number of six-figure awards."

Lawsuits aimed at media companies generally elicit an uncomfortable reaction from parties on both sides of the political aisle for their potential to set precedents for undermining First Amendment rights of the press.

Bollea v Gawker, which set the stage for the destruction of the often loved, often loathed media site by billionaire Peter Thiel and Terry Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, was widely condemned as an assault on the First Amendment by a pair of rich men.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, told the Times of San Diego that the lawsuit looked to be a SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) lawsuit meant to chill the network's free speech rights.

"WASHLITE essentially accuses Fox News of false advertising because of its editorial misinformation," Mr Goldman said. "The lawsuit is still a SLAPP, so I'm happy to call it that. There's just not the fast procedural lane provided by the [Washington state] anti-SLAPP law."

Mr Goldman does agree, however, that "many thousands of Americans will die because they relied on the misinformation broadcast by Fox News."

Mr West says he isn't looking to stifle free speech, but hopes his lawsuit will inject "practical wisdom" into the law to better protect the public.

"It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either," he said. "There is danger that, if the court does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.

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