Amid the mushrooming coronavirus crisis, Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch are girding for a pandemic of public-interest lawsuits over misinformation and conspiracy theories dispensed by certain Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network personalities such as Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and Trish Regan.
According to a top Murdoch executive, the father-and-son media moguls are ready to go to war with potential plaintiffs such as the Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics—aka WASHLITE—an activist non-profit that filed suit on Thursday against Rupert Murdoch, Fox News, and other defendants.
The 10-page complaint, first reported by The Times of San Diego and filed in the superior court of Washington state’s King County, seeks a judgment that the Murdoch-controlled outlets violated the state’s consumer protection laws by “falsely and deceptively disseminating ‘News’ via cable news contracts that the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19 was a ‘Hoax,’ and that the virus was otherwise not a danger to public health and safety.”
The lawsuit, which seeks “nominal damages” and “reasonable attorneys’ fees,” demands an injunction to prevent Fox outlets from “otherwise interfering with or undermining the 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.”
The lawsuit doesn’t list specific examples of the alleged “campaign of deception spread by the Defendants”—who also include the AT&T and Comcast cable services—but WASHLITE plans to do so in a future court filing.
The conservative outlet fired back—in a statement provided to The Daily Beast, and attributed to Lily Fu Claffee, Fox News Media’s general counsel—that WASHLITE’s lawsuit is “Wrong on the facts, frivolous on the law.”
Claffee added, “We will defend vigorously and seek sanctions as appropriate.”
UPDATE: On Tuesday, April 14, Fox filed a motion to dismiss the suit arguing that the broadcasts are protected by the First Amendment.
WASHLITE board member Arthur West, a non-lawyer and former automobile mechanic who earns what he describes as a handsome living as a professional public-interest plaintiff, told The Daily Beast that he’s not impressed by Claffee’s vow to seek retribution: “We are not afraid of the big bad Fox.”
As for possible sanctions against him and his group, “I’m pretty sure they’ll try something like that, because that’s what bullies do,” West said, noting that WASHLITE was launched by him and four other environmental, public interest, and open records activists around three years ago.
“We studied at the Rooster Cogburn school of litigation”—a reference to the fictional U.S. marshal in Charles Portis' novel True Grit and and the two John Wayne movies it inspired.
West, 59, said he has been arrested numerous times in protest and civil-disobedience incidents, but claimed the rewards of successful lawsuits have allowed him to afford a lovely house in Olympia, Wash., overlooking Puget Sound and a fleet of pricey sports cars. He insisted this latest litigation against Fox is not a public-relations stunt.
“We’re as serious as a heart attack when we go into court,” West said.
“This might seem strange to you,” he added, “but I make a very good living beating the government in court”—mostly suing local jurisdictions, politicians, and taxpayer-funded agencies using Washington’s public records and open records laws. “I’ve gotten a number of six-figure awards… I have a collection of European sports cars. I drive a Jaguar. I have three Mercedes 450 SLs and an Alfa Romeo. My house overlooks the water, and it was purchased with money from the liquor control board.”
West won a $192,000 settlement after filing an open-meetings lawsuit against the agency that governs Washington’s legalized marijuana industry.
The Murdoch exec, however, said his bosses won’t cave so easily. Former Fox Business anchor Trish Regan—who on March 9 claimed that the enemies of President Donald Trump were plotting to use the novel coronavirus outbreak to re-impeach him—lost her show, in part, to mollify a chorus of Fox critics.
“She was a sacrificial lamb,” said the exec. But this person added that the Murdochs are done making such concessions.
“The strategy is no settlements, even if it costs way more to fight the lawsuit and seek sanctions for ambulance-chasing lawyers,” the Murdoch exec told The Daily Beast, noting that the Murdochs retained Williams & Connolly in 2018 and engineered the dismissal of two federal lawsuits over Fox News’ conspiracy-mongering in the July 2016 robbery shooting-death of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich.
The current lawsuit, and others like it, could meet with a similar fate on First Amendment grounds. New York Times op-ed columnist Kara Swisher, for one, wrote in a column attacking Fox News for allegedly dispensing dangerous coronavirus disinformation to her eighty-something mother: “Lawsuits are a bad idea. Here’s why: I believe in Fox News’s First Amendment right as a press organization, even if some of its on-air talent did not mind being egregiously bad at their jobs when it came to giving out accurate health data.”
And former Fox News star Megyn Kelly, an attorney by training, recently tweeted at NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen: “Anyone filing such a lawsuit would be laughed out of court and likely sanctioned by the court for filing a frivolous lawsuit. But, whatever you need to tell yourself to stay occupied during quarantine...”