Despite reported “concerns” at Fox News that its downplaying of the coronavirus could expose the network to lawsuits by viewers who took unnecessary risks as a result of the coverage, a legal expert at Law & Crime thinks the Murdoch fortunes are probably not in any danger.
Law & Crime’s Aaron Keller, who holds a law degree and a broadcast journalism degree, wrote a lengthy article for the site which states that a lawsuit over coronavirus coverage would be “neither an easy nor likely successful task.”
You may recall that Vanity Fair correspondent Gabriel Sherman said this on Sunday’s AM Joy show on MSNBC:
SHERMAN: When I've been talking to Fox insiders over the last few days, there's a real concern inside the network that their early downplaying of the coronavirus actually exposes Fox News to potential legal action by viewers who maybe were misled and actually have died from this. I've heard that Trish Regan's being taken off the air is, you know, reflective of this concern that Fox News is in big trouble by downplaying this virus and The New York Times reported days ago that the Murdoch family was privately taking the coronavirus seriously. The Murdochs, of course, own Fox News. So, they were taking personal steps to protect themselves while anchors like Trish Regan and Sean Hannity were telling viewers that it's a hoax and putting themselves potentially in mortal danger. So I think this is a case where Fox's coverage, if it actually winds up being proved that people died because of it, this is a new terrain in terms of Fox being possibly held liable for their actions.
Keller says not so much. He wades deep into the legal weeds to make his argument. I’ll spare you the details but I believe the upshot is this:
Several of these cases differentiate between author and publisher, but the cases discussed earlier involving broadcasting entities seem to generally extend the concept of publishing to broadcasters — at least as corporate entities. Author liability is a separate matter. Plus, a few cases do open up publishers to liability where a publisher endorses a product.
I think what he’s saying here is that what comes out of the mouths of the guests (“authors”) may make them liable but not “publisher/broadcaster” Fox for hosting them. But what about when it’s the host making such claims, such as Sean Hannity suggesting the virus is a “hoax” or Ainsley Earhardt urging viewers to get on a plane because it’s “the safest time to fly?” And, of course, there’s Trish Regan’s now-infamous “coronavirus impeachment scam.” Regan’s subsequent firing notwithstanding, couldn’t such comments be considered an “endorsement?” These folks are paid to be the face and voice of Fox News. However, Keller also points out that it would probably be difficult to prove that someone got the coronavirus because Fox convinced a person to disregard the danger, as opposed to say, catching it from someone at the grocery store or someone being reckless on their own (bad) judgment.
I’m not a lawyer. But I take Keller’s word that suing Fox would be a difficult case. His bottom line:
Maybe — just maybe — a claim by someone who watches Fox News and who is harmed by the coronavirus would be successful through the hands of a very creative and diligent lawyer. Maybe. Such a win would be difficult.
Maybe we’ll find out one day.
(Top image via screen grab)
Just more proof Fox isn’t ‘news.’