A little-known Washington nonprofit has filed a lawsuit against Fox News in King County Superior Court, claiming the news station, its parent companies and owners violated the state’s Consumer Protection Act and acted in bad faith by disseminating false information about the novel coronavirus through its television news broadcasts and minimized the danger posed by the virus as COVID-19 began to explode into a pandemic.
The suit, filed on behalf of the Washington League for Increased Transparency and Ethics (WASHLITE), alleges Fox News engaged in unfair or deceptive acts by representing the coronavirus as a hoax in broadcasts that aired in February and March. Those broadcasts caused viewers to fail to adequately protect themselves or mitigate the virus’ spread, and therefore contributed to the public-health crisis and preventable mass death, the lawsuit says.
WASHLITE was incorporated in September 2017 by an Onalaska, Lewis County, man, according to the Secretary of State’s website, but the nonprofit does not appear to have any other web presence.
Yakima attorney Liz Hallock, who is running for governor as a Green Party candidate, is representing WASHLITE in the lawsuit against Fox News.
“We are not trying to chill free speech here. But we believe the public was endangered by false and deceptive communications in the stream of commerce,” Hallock said in phone interview Friday. “There are a lot of people who listen to Fox News, and they’re not taking the recommendations of public-health officials seriously. This is not about money; it’s about making sure the public gets the message this is not a hoax.”
According to Hallock, several members of WASHLITE live in King County and one of them has COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.
The Times of San Diego, which first reported on the lawsuit Thursday, quoted a statement from Lily Fu Claffee, Fox News Media’s general counsel, in response to the lawsuit: “Wrong on the facts, frivolous on the law. We will defend vigorously and seek sanctions as appropriate.”
Though the lawsuit does not fully enumerate instances when Fox News personnel characterized the virus as a hoax during the two-month period, it points to March 9 broadcasts by Fox hosts Sean Hannity and Trish Regan as examples.
On that day, Hannity said, “They’re scaring the living hell out of people and I see it as, like, ‘Oh, let’s bludgeon Trump again with this new hoax.'”
“Late Night” host Seth Meyers on Wednesday lampooned Hannity over his comments, playing the March 9 clip alongside one from nine days later in which Hannity said his program has always taken the coronavirus seriously “and we’ve never called the virus a hoax.”
Regan’s March 9 broadcast prompted her dismissal from Fox Business News. A video posted on The Daily Beast’s website shows Regan delivering a monologue next to a graphic that reads, “Coronavirus Impeachment Scam.” Regan accused the left of creating mass hysteria over the virus and shutting down the economy, saying COVID-19 wasn’t as significant as other recent disease outbreaks such as SARS and Ebola.
“So why the melodrama on such an agitated scale right now? Why are the markets acting like this? I’ll give you two words: Donald Trump,” Regan said in the video.
Hallock said her clients are seeking only nominal damages and reasonable attorney’s fees. Ideally, she would like a judge to find Fox News violated the Consumer Protection Act and to tell the media organization to stop disseminating false information about the virus. She’d also like to see Fox News issue a clear retraction and an apology to viewers.
She said the classic example to demonstrate the limits of free speech is someone yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater when there is no danger. In contrast, Hallock said of Fox News: “They’re yelling, ‘There is no fire!’ when there is a fire.”