To the editor:
What will it take hold Fox News accountable for its dangerous and irresponsible coverage during the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak? When it was in lock-step with President Trump's bogus claims at his rallies that the virus was a "hoax" conjured by Democrats to sink his presidency? On March 9 Sean Hannity sarcastically old his viewers, " let's bludgeon Trump with this new hoax " It wasn't until March 17 that he told his viewers to take precautions - after the administration persistently ignored warnings as early as January by Dr. Anthony Fauci. And on March 18, Hannity outrageously said: "By the way, this program has always taken the coronavirus seriously. We've never called the virus a hoax."
It's interesting to note that the New York Times reported that, on March 8, the family of Fox owner/publisher Rupert Murdoch cancelled a scheduled family birthday celebration out of concern over the virus, while Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Judge Jeanine Pirro raged on about the left-wing media's corona-virus "hysteria."
But don't all networks enjoy the right to free speech, even if their reporting ignores the facts? Perhaps not this time. Some attorneys are pursuing an ingenious argument against what they consider life-endangering speech that would not be protected under the First Amendment - a movement supported by distinguished Harvard Professor Emeritus Laurence Tribe. They argue that parties might be able to prove that Fox deliberately lied and that such lies influenced viewers' beliefs that the virus was a hoax, which led them to fail to protect themselves and their families who as a result got sick and died. Since the network would stand accused of reckless or intentional behavior (not mere negligence), a portion of any damages found would be punitive, which could easily put Fox out of business.
What evidence is there to support such claims? Time honored tests of what constitutes freedom of speech are embodied in two sayings: 1) "You can't shout fire in a crowded theatre" - on the theory that it would lead to immediate bodily harm; and 2) "Your right to swing your arm ends at the other person's nose." Can a link between Fox network's broadcasts and bodily harm be proven in court? Lawyers suggest it's a real possibility, given polling data collected before Fox changed its messaging.
According to a YouGov/Economist poll conducted March 15-17, only 38 percent of Fox News viewers say they're worried about the virus — compared with 68 percent for those who pay more attention to broadcast news, or 72 percent who pay more attention to national newspapers. A Pew Research Center poll conducted between March 10-15, shows that 56 percent of Fox News viewers believe the media has "greatly exaggerated the risks" of the corona-virus (compared with 24 percent of viewers of CNN and 12 percent of viewers of MSNBC). The Pew poll also found that only 27 percent of Fox viewers consider corona-virus to be "a major threat" to public health in the US.
Whether these arguments can temper the stream of "fake news" spewed by Fox News, and whether these cases can be proved in court remains to be seen, but Fox has clearly altered its messaging of late - let's hope it's not too late.
Carolyn Kay Brancato,
The author is a novelist/writer who focuses on free speech.