Fake News Comeuppance? Fox News Sued for COVID-19 Coverage

Monday April 6, 2020

Fox News' COVID-19 coverage has come under fire recently, as this Daily Show video attests.

A little-known group out of Washington state (one of the state's hardest hit in the early days of COVID-19) has sued the Rupert Murdoch-owned news organization over their coverage, "asking a state court to keep the cable network from airing false information about the pandemic," the Times of San Diego reports.

The 10-page complaint was filed Thursday by Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics, (WASHLITE) in King County and names as defendants Fox News Corp., owner Rupert Murdoch, AT&T TV and COMCAST.

"WASHLITE was incorporated in September 2017 by an Onalaska, Lewis County, man, according to the Secretary of State's website, but the nonprofit does not appear to have any other web presence," reports the Washington state-based news outlet the Daily Chronicle.

It seeks an injunction to prohibit the conservative-leaning outlet from "interfering with reasonable and necessary measures to contain the virus by publishing further false and deceptive content," reports the Times of San Diego.

Lily Fu Claffee, general counsel for Fox New Media, in a statement said: "Wrong on the facts, frivolous on the law. We will defend vigorously and seek sanctions as appropriate."

Arthur West, the leader of the three-year-old Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics (WASHLITE), told the Times of San Diego, that Fox News interfered with social distancing measures with its coverage.

"That's the real evil of this type of programming," West told the Times of San Diego. "We believe it delayed and interfered with a prompt and adequate response to this coronavirus pandemic within the state of Washington."

He also denied his organization (with some 30 associate members) was aiming to stifle First Amendment rights.

"It's like the theater thing," he said. "Up to the point where you get up in the theater and yell 'Fire!' you can say whatever you want. But when you get to the point where you are endangering the community — that transcends the limits of the First Amendment."

A screenshot of Sean Hannity's Fox News show from February 27, 2020.

"The WASHLITE suit includes a request for relief under the state's Consumer Protection Act, alleging Fox News violated the act by 'falsely and deceptively disseminating "News" via cable news contracts that the coronavirus was a "hoax," and that it was otherwise not a danger to public health and safety,' " writes the Times of San Diego.

Citing March 9 broadcasts by Sean Hannity and Trish Regan, the suit contends that "defendants acted in bad faith to willfully and maliciously disseminate false information denying and minimizing the danger posed by the spread of the novel Coronavirus, or COVID-19, which is now recognized as an international pandemic."

"Last week, Fox Business Network said it officially 'parted ways' with anchor Regan after what some called a rant against the 'coronavirus impeachment scam,' " writes the Times of San Diego.

Legal expert Eric Goldman, professor at Santa Clara University School of Law says that this kind of SLAPP lawsuit — a strategic lawsuit against public participation — stifles free speech.

But, he adds, Fox bears some responsibility in disseminating false information about COVID-19.

"Many thousands of Americans will die because they relied on the misinformation broadcast by Fox News," said Goldman, a board member of the Public Participation Project, working to pass federal anti-SLAPP legislation in Congress. "Historians will harshly condemn Fox News' irresponsibility and gaslighting on COVID-19 (and many other subjects)," he told the Times of San Diego.

West believes that the case during discovery will track how Fox News publicly downplayed COVID-19 dangers while bolstering anti-COVID-19 measures behind the scenes.

"We want to know when Fox News knew that the coronavirus was actually a dangerous thing, and we believe there is some evidence that ... Mr. Murdoch and the staff running Fox News were implementing coronavirus protection measures for their staff ... while at the same time they were broadcasting that it was a hoax."

And sees it as a difference between public adherence to responsible policy and what some are saying threats to personal liberty.

"It is between liberty with order and anarchy without either," West told the Times of San Diego via email. "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."

Yakima, Washington resident attorney Liz Hallock is representing WASHLITE in the lawsuit against Fox News. She is also running for governor as a Green Party candidate.

"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," Hallock said in phone interview Friday to the Daily Chronicle. "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."

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