By:
February 5, 2021

Wow.

That’s the first word that comes to mind when you see the details of what is being described as a monster lawsuit against Fox News and some of its most popular on-air personalities.

Fox Corp. and the star anchors are being sued for defamation by Smartmatic, the election technology company. Here’s the part that will make anyone stand up and notice: The suit is for no less than $2.7 billion.

That’s billion with a B.

The anchors named in the suit are big-time names: Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo and Judge Jeanine Pirro. The company is also suing Donald Trump’s lawyers, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell.

In its suit, Smartmatic claims Giuliani and Powell, who were guests on Fox News and Fox Business, “created a story about Smartmatic” and that “Fox joined the conspiracy to defame and disparage Smartmatic and its election technology and software.” They allege their company has been “decimated.”

The “story” Smartmatic is referring to is the false claim that the election was rigged for Joe Biden and against Trump and that Smartmatic participated in a fraudulent election. Smartmatic said Fox made “100 false statements and implications” on air and that has damaged its business and future prospects.

The complaint also states, “The story turned neighbor against neighbor. The story led a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol.”

In a statement, Fox News said, “Fox News Media is committed to providing the full context of every story with in-depth reporting and clear opinion. We are proud of our 2020 election coverage and will vigorously defend this meritless lawsuit in court.”

Back in December, Media Matters’ Bobby Lewis chronicled some of the baseless conspiracy theories about Smartmatic that appeared on right-wing or conservative media, including Fox News. Meanwhile, Fox News essentially acknowledged there might have been issues with things said on shows hosted by Dobbs, Bartiromo and Pirro. In December, all three shows ran the same interview with Eddie Perez, a voting technology expert who said there was no evidence of election fraud. Each interview also had virtually the same introduction. (You can see the clips here, here and here.)

But the bland and robotic interviews with Perez didn’t slow down many of the things said on Fox about the election. Even Perez thought that.

He told NPR’s Bill Chappell and David Folkenflik, “I think it’s disingenuous to pretend that a two-and-a-half minute fact check was adequate to undo the damage that Fox and other networks had done with over a month of inflammatory and baseless claims.”

He also said, “I don’t think that even the most generous viewer could say that that was a retraction. There was a very brief introduction to the piece where Lou Dobbs didn’t really have much commentary at all. And there was not much recognition of just how much Fox News had amplified and given a platform for extremely damaging misinformation.”

And the most intriguing part of what was a 276-page complaint? As The New York Times’ Jonah E. Bromwich and Ben Smith wrote, “In its frontal attack on (Rupert) Murdoch’s media empire, Smartmatic argues that Fox cast it as a villain in a fictitious narrative meant to help win back viewers from Newsmax and OANN. Each saw ratings surge in the weeks after the election thanks to their embrace of the fiction that Mr. Biden was not the rightful victor. The Smartmatic suit also argues that Mr. Giuliani and Ms. Powell sought to enrich themselves and improve their standing with Mr. Trump’s supporters by making claims that were damaging to the company.”

Smartmatic also wrote, “They knew the election was not stolen. They knew the election was not rigged or fixed. They knew these truths just as they knew the Earth is round and two plus two equals four.”

There’s no telling what will happen next, but the $2.7 billion part is serious stuff. Whether this actually goes to trial remains to be seen, but don’t expect this to go away quietly.

One more thing about the lawsuit

CNN’s Brian Stelter correctly points out that anytime a journalist or news outlet is sued, journalists everywhere need to pay attention and be concerned. However …

“This lawsuit has very little to do with journalism at all,” Stelter said. “This lawsuit is not about press freedom. It’s about liars on television lying to desperately help the outgoing president of the United States. … Not trying to get their facts right, but just entertaining their viewers with damaging lies.”

Zucker to stick around for rest of the year

CNN president Jeff Zucker. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

CNN president Jeff Zucker told employees in a call Thursday morning that he will leave the network at the end of the year. He has been president of CNN Worldwide since 2013.

In the company’s daily editorial call, according to CNN’s Brian Stelter, Zucker, 55, said, “The truth is, back in November and December I had basically decided that it was time to move on now. But since then I’ve had a change of heart. And I want to stay. Not forever, but for another year. And I feel really good about this decision.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Stephen Battaglio, who broke the news, wrote, “Zucker currently has no plans beyond 2021. Opportunities are likely to become clearer when the pandemic subsides and business returns to normal.”

Zucker’s decision comes at a time when CNN appears in healthy shape, having been on top of the ratings among cable news in recent weeks.

But, as The New York Times’ Ben Smith and Katie Robertson note, “his departure comes amid questions of how CNN’s parent company, AT&T, will steer the cable news channel at a time when Americans increasingly don’t want to pay for cable and streaming services are still unprofitable.”

CNN, and many networks and news outlets that heavily cover national politics, also might have to deal with a change in the news — a return to so-called “normalcy” now that Donald Trump is no longer in the White House.

Zucker, it is believed, will be missed by his employees, especially in the news division.

CNN anchor Jake Tapper told the Times, “He’s the best boss I ever had, and it’s not even close. I’m grateful that we get him for another year.”

A New York Times controversy?

Last month, The New York Times admitted that it investigated and disciplined science and health reporter Donald McNeil Jr. over an inappropriate comment he made while traveling with students on a trip to Peru in 2019. The story was first broken by The Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani and Lachlan Cartwright. In the Daily Beast story, the Times acknowledged that McNeil “had used bad judgment by repeating a racist slur in the context of a conversation about racist language.”

Now The Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr is reporting that some Times staffers are angry because they don’t believe the Times took the incident seriously enough. In a letter to management, the staffers said they were “outraged.” According to an email to staffers and obtained by Barr, Times management said they “largely agree” with the staffers and they promised to “examine the way we manage behavioral problems among members of the staff.”

Management added, “We are determined to learn the right lessons from this incident. You will see results.”

After reports of the incident surfaced, Times executive editor Dean Baquet reportedly determined McNeil’s actions were not “hurtful or malicious” and that he should be given another chance. But more than 150 Times staffers wrote management to say they “felt disrespected” by McNeil’s words and actions.

Barr reported that Baquet, publisher A.G. Sulzberger and chief executive Meredith Kopit Levien reached back to the staffers within a few hours of their letter and promised to look into the matter further.

Times are good

Once upon a time, The New York Times had the goal of reaching 10 million paid digital subscribers. Now, the Times is saying that goal is not ambitious enough. They picked up 627,000 subscribers last quarter and now have 7.5 million. That’s a remarkable number.

Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds breaks down the Times’ latest quarterly report with a highly readable Q&A summary.

A house divided

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., walks back to her office after speaking on the floor of the House Chamber on Thursday. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Just before the House of Representatives voted Thursday to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) from House committees for past conspiracy theory comments, Greene spoke to the House. In a 10-minute speech that appeared to be a last-ditch effort to keep her position on committees, Greene said she regretted some of her previous comments.

She then said she believed the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 “absolutely happened” and that school shootings, such as the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were “absolutely real.” In the past, she said aspects of both were staged and false flags.

Greene told the House, “I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true and I would ask questions about them and talk about them, and that is absolutely what I regret. … When I started finding misinformation, lies, things that were not true in these QAnon posts, I stopped believing it. … Any source of information that is a mix of truth and a mix of lies is dangerous.”

How sincere were Greene’s words? She said them while wearing a mask that said “FREE SPEECH.” And she said them just a couple of hours after tweeting, “It’s not just me they want to cancel. They want to cancel every Republican. Don’t let the mob win.”

On MSNBC, anchor Nicolle Wallace said, “I don’t even know what to call it.  A half-hearted, semi-walkback of some of her worse, most offensive claims? It’s not worth repeating the excuses she offered or her belated acknowledgment that school shootings and 9/11 were real after all.”

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump wrote, “What was most revealing about Greene’s speech, though, wasn’t the effort to distance herself from the comments that led to the current firestorm and from her past embrace of the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory. It was, instead, that she clearly still believes that the misinformation universe from which conspiracy theories such as QAnon emerge is valid and that she still adheres without apology to false claims that are common and accepted within the conservative political sphere.”

In fact, Greene compared the media to QAnon, saying, “What shall we do as Americans? Shall we stay divided like this? Will we allow the media — that is just as guilty as QAnon of presenting truth and lies — to divide us?”

Bump wrote, “Greene’s comments about her past beliefs were almost certainly more than enough to assuage any concerns from her Republican peers (or, perhaps more accurately, any concerns about the fallout from her comments). But as is made clear with the equivalence she draws between Q and the media, she’s still obviously susceptible to believing untrue claims.”

Check out Bump’s column, but he also makes this point that is as depressing as it is troubling: “Many Americans, like Greene, have embraced the idea that no source of information is accurate and have therefore rejected traditional media and embraced conspiracy theories.”

Schiff’s comments

Seemingly referring to lawmakers such as Greene, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) had strong and controversial comments about the Republican party during an interview on CBS News’ “The Takeout” podcast.

Schiff told host Major Garrett, “Sadly, it has already become essentially a cult, not just of QAnon, but a whole range of conspiracy theories orbiting around Donald Trump. Which of course is a disaster not only for the Republican Party, but is a disaster for the country. We really rely on two functional parties for our system to work, and right now we don’t have that.”

He added, “Until they’re able to extricate themselves from this lunatic fringe, until they’re able to extricate themselves also from the person of Donald Trump, there’s not much hope for that party, tragically.”

Media tidbits

  • Yahoo News’ TikTok has hit 1 million followers on TikTok. Business Insider’s Dan Whateley has the details.
  • For the first time in decades, the New York Post made a profit. The New York Times’ Edmund Lee has the story.
  • Tonight’s lineup on PBS’s “Washington Week” (8 p.m. Eastern on most PBS stations): “PBS NewsHour’s” Lisa Desjardins makes her debut as guest moderator with The New York Times’ Jonathan Martin, Punchbowl News’ Jake Sherman and The Wall Street Journal’s Sabrina Siddiqui. Topics likely will include Marjorie Taylor Greene, the COVID-19 relief package and Desjardins’ experience inside the Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection.

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Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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