The New York Times brushed off Fox News primetime star Sean Hannity’s threat of legal action on Monday night over several articles criticizing his coronavirus coverage, saying there was “no basis” to retract any of the pieces.
Hannity retained Charles Harder—a celebrity attorney famous from Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit that destroyed Gawker—to push for an apology and retraction from The New York Times over a series of columns critical of the pro-Trump host.
“We have reported fairly and accurately on Mr. Hannity,” a Times spokesperson told the Daily Beast on Monday evening. “There is no basis for a retraction or an apology.”
In a lengthy and bellicose demand letter sent to the Times’ general counsel and three columnists on Monday evening, Harder demanded that the paper pull down a series of stories for what the lawyer described as “mischaracterizing” Hannity’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.
One story, written by Ginia Bellafante on April 18, described a bar owner who was skeptical about the novel coronavirus before he took a cruise and later died from the virus, implying that his skepticism towards the disease was due to his regular consumption of Fox News programming and, particularly, Hannity’s show.
Harder’s letter also spotlighted columns written by tech journalist Kara Swisher and media columnist Ben Smith that claimed that the Fox News personality had downplayed the severity of the virus until March, asserting that the statements were “false and defamatory.”
Hannity lashed out both online and on the air following Swisher’s column that highlighted how he had repeatedly minimized the crisis, prompting Swisher to call the conservative star a “windbag of rage” during an interview with The Daily Beast.
The majority of the rest of the demand letter consists of instances from January and February in which Hannity has repeatedly insisted on-air and on his personal website that he warned of the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak. Harder also includes examples of what Hannity feels are other media outlets downplaying the virus early on.
“Your attempt to single out and attack Mr. Hannity for his coronavirus coverage, when he was more responsible in his coverage that all of the foregoing individuals and media outlets, and your intentional disregard for the foregoing irresponsible Democratic Party politicians and Democratic Party-friendly media outlets, including ABC, NBC, CBS, and MSNBC establishes clear bias on your part in connection with Mr. Hannity and the Stories,” Harder wrote, threatening a lawsuit if no action is taken.
Despite Hannity’s protestations, the unofficial adviser to President Donald Trump repeatedly minimized and downplayed the pandemic during the critical early weeks of the crisis. The Fox News fixture spent weeks comparing the deadly coronavirus to the seasonal flu while insisting Democrats were “politicizing and actually weaponizing an infectious disease” to “bludgeon” Trump. He also suggested in early March that the outbreak was a “deep state” plot to destroy the economy, and Democrats’ concerns over the virus were a “new hoax” to take down the president.
Besides representing Hogan and other conservatives suing media outlets, Harder was retained by Trump last year to represent him in his lawsuit filed by sexual-misconduct accuser Alva Johnson.
In a letter delivered to Harder, New York Times newsroom lawyer David McCraw bluntly responded that there would be no retraction.
“The columns are accurate, do not reasonably imply what you and Mr. Hannity allege they do, and constitute protected opinion,” McCraw wrote. “In response to your request for an apology and retraction, our answer is ‘no.’”
-- additional reporting by Lloyd Grove