Alexander Vindman, the Trump impeachment witness who became the target of a smear campaign by Fox News and other right-wing media, made a powerful argument for defamation lawsuits as a way to de-radicalize the right-wing media.
In an editorial for Lawfare, Vindman noted that while the January 6 insurrectionists are being held accountable via the criminal justice system and Congress attempted to hold Donald Trump accountable for his Big Lie that incited the rioters, there seems to be no process for holding right-wing media responsible for its radicalizing “disinformation and half-truths.” It's a vicious cycle, Vindman says:
It is clear that both the political enablers and the right-wing media are now trapped in a vicious cycle in which their followers demand that their enablers dole out more outrageous lies. As historian Timothy Snyder noted in “The American Abyss,” the accumulation of little lies has manifested the Big Lie, and the right-wing media continues to feed the beast they helped create.
Our First Amendment makes it difficult to hold the media to account. But defamation laws, which hit the media where it hurts the most, i.e. in their pocketbooks, could provide a disincentive.
Vindman wishes now that he had sued (presumably the statute of limitations has passed for a claim). He went through a chilling recitation of his own experience:
Lessons must be drawn from my own experience. I have been the target of a comprehensive defamation campaign by right-wing media outlets and their pundits. During a segment on Fox News with Laura Ingraham, John Yoo stated that I may have committed “espionage” for simply fulfilling my duties. This slanderous accusation was quickly picked up as a “good point and worth discussing” by the Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, and Raheem Kassam explicitly questioned my loyalty and patriotism over unfounded claims of “backchannels” and “espionage” on a podcast with Steve Bannon. Rudy Giuliani accused me of advising two governments. American Greatness provided a platform for attacking my character, publishing a fabricated tale by Lt. Col. (ret.) Jim Hickman about a verbal reprimanding that never took place and my supposed radical political leanings, distaste for America, and actions as a “political activist in uniform”—all bald-faced lies. American Greatness paired with Hickman again after my departure from the National Security Council, claiming that I should be court-martialed, a threat of punitive action echoed by Trump and his enablers, including in the right-wing media. On multiple occasions, Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn promulgated lies that I had “leaked” information to the whistleblower, while accusing me of acting as the “whistleblower’s handler.” The Federalist’s Sean Davis took these same malicious falsehoods a step further, insisting that I had lied to Congress. All the while, congresspeople and right-wing media outlets reiterated attacks on me for being an immigrant and somehow not American, seeking to “undermine” Trump and “the chain of command,” feeling “simpatico with the Ukraine,” acting as a member of the “deep state”, and taking part in a “palace coup.”
Vindman makes an important point, in my view: Fox News stars and others in the right-wing ecosystem are “galvanizing extremism on the back of defamation.” Tucker Carlson’s smears of Dr. Anthony Fauci have triggered death threats against him, e.g.
In December, Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling, a Republican, begged Trump and his state’s Republican senators to stop the Big Lie about the stolen election. “Someone is going to get hurt. Someone is going to get shot. Someone’s going to get killed,” Sterling said. That’s exactly what happened one month later at the Capitol.
Sterling might as well have begged Fox News, too. Media Matters found that Fox cast doubt on the election results at least 774 times in the two weeks after the 2020 election that Fox called for Biden (the network fired its politics editor two months later) and continued to suggest Democrats had tried to steal the election right up until the day of the insurrection.
The only means of breaking the cycle is accountability. Civil consequences, rather than governmental restrictions on First Amendment rights, could be a meaningful way to take what are fundamentally money-making ventures and demand truth from them, instill rigor in their reporting, and uphold accountability.
Vindman cites as a good start Fox’s presumably-generous settlement with Seth Rich’s family for falsely suggesting the young murder victim, not the Russians had leaked DNC emails to WikiLeaks, and the eye-popping $2.7+ billion defamation suit against Fox by Smartmatic, a voting technology company that Fox used as disinformation fodder for its Big Lie.
Fox News was forced to make big changes after it was hit with a string of sexual harassment lawsuits. True, it was willing to keep shelling out dough behind the scenes to cover up for Bill O'Reilly, right up until the time public relations and advertisers made his stay untenable. But O'Reilly "only" cost the network $13 million in claims. Sooner or later, a slew of defamation suits could likely make the radicalizing lies untenable too.
You can read the full editorial here.
(Vindman image via screen grab)