Two news organizations issued corrections recently. One was The New York Times. The other was Fox Business. One concerned an honest mistake. The Times admitted to having been scammed by the subject of one of its podcast series. Fox Business did not admit to anything but instead ran an interview that directly contradicted some — actually a small fraction — of the false, hysterical and malevolent conspiracy theories about election fraud the network has been pushing.
If you were watching “Lou Dobbs Tonight” on Dec. 18, you saw something jarring — a dose of reality. Dobbs has been peddling outright disinformation for a very long time. Before he moved to Fox, he was a fixture on CNN, where he reported, falsely, that immigrants were causing a huge spike of leprosy cases. Dobbs has a perhaps sincere, but nonetheless maniacal, fear and hatred of immigrants. He pumped out baseless allegations that the LDS church was purposely violating immigration laws to smuggle Mexicans into the country, and said that one-third of prison inmates were illegal aliens (not even close). But nothing has topped his recent fulminations about the election. When Attorney General William Barr said he had not seen evidence of voter fraud significant enough to affect the outcome of the election, Dobbs sailed off the rationality cliff altogether. “For the attorney general to make that statement, he is either a liar or a fool or both,” said Dobbs. “He may be, perhaps, compromised.”
So, the Dec. 18 segment must have taken some of Dobbs’ 300,000 or so viewers by surprise. It was a pretaped interview with Edward Perez, of the Open Source Election Technology Institute. Someone (not Dobbs) asked Perez questions about vote fraud such as “Have you seen any evidence of Smartmatic sending U.S. votes to be tabulated in foreign countries?” Perez had not.
Fox Business has not had a sudden attack of conscience. No, this uncharacteristic moment of candor was in response to a 20-page demand letter from lawyers for Smartmatic, one of the companies Dobbs and other Fox figures have been slandering as tools of the “deep state,” a cat’s paw for a dead Venezuelan dictator, and so forth. Smartmatic is credibly threatening to sue Fox. It makes for bracing reading, a point by point refutation of everything Dobbs and his colleagues have been spewing for weeks. “All these statements and implications are false and defamatory,” the letter says.
The reason this is no ordinary Fox News lie is that Smartmatic is not a public figure. Since New York Times v. Sullivan in 1964, it has been pretty much impossible to defame a public figure in the United States. Plaintiffs must show not just that the news story was wrong, but that it showed “reckless disregard for the truth or falsity” of the content. Though this policy permits the public square to be saturated with lies, it is considered worth the price to maintain uninhibited debate about matters of public importance.
The standard for private persons, or in this case companies, is different. There is no public purpose to be served by letting a newspaper falsely report without fear of a libel suit that Mr. Joe Smith is an embezzler. Most state laws require a plaintiff to show mere negligence on the part of a news organization or other defendant. The plaintiff must also show damages, namely that the defamatory content harms its capacity to do business. Smartmatic’s business is running elections. They may have a strong case. So, Fox is taking the precaution of issuing these “clarifications” — not just on Lou Dobbs Tonight but also on other Fox shows.
So much for Exhibit A. Here’s Exhibit B. The New York Times issued a retraction of its award-winning series “Caliphate,” which featured interviews with a Canadian named Shehroze Chaudhry, who claimed to have joined ISIS and to have committed crimes in Syria. On Sept. 25, 2019, Canadian police arrested Chaudhry and charged him with perpetrating a terror hoax. In a podcast mea culpa, Times executive editor Dean Baquet acknowledged the error, admitting that the story should have been better fact-checked.
Probed by host Michael Barbaro about why the Times failed its own standards in this case, Baquet admitted that “confirmation bias” played a role. The Times returned the Peabody Award the series had received.
In short, the paper did the right thing.
There is a yawning chasm between the Times and Fox News (and its imitators at OANN and Newsmax, who have also been named by Smartmatic’s attorneys). For all its faults and biases, the Times is in the news business. It holds itself to standards and acknowledges error. Fox et al are propagandists and provocateurs. Who was harmed by the Times’s error? Only the Times itself. ISIS certainly has no reputation to damage, and Chaudhry is not an injured party. He appears to be a scam artist.
Who was harmed by the Fox crowd’s lies? An individual company sure, but also faith in democracy itself. Most people assume that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Subjected to a deluge of disinformation from Donald Trump and his enablers, millions of Americans have had their confidence in the most basic institution of democracy — free and fair elections — badly shaken.
The lawyer-extracted corrections are welcome, but they cannot begin to undo the damage these pernicious liars have perpetrated.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the “Beg to Differ” podcast. Her most recent book is “Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense.” To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.