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Dominion voting case exposes post-election fear at Fox News

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NEW YORK (AP) — A court filing in a lawsuit against Fox News lays bare a panic at the network that it had alienated its viewers and damaged its brand by not lining up with President Donald Trump’s false claims that he had won the 2020 presidential election.

That worry — a real one, judging by Fox’s ratings in the election’s aftermath — played a key role in Fox not setting the record straight about unfounded fraud claims, the network’s accuser contends.

“It’s remarkable how weak ratings make good journalists do bad things,” the filing quotes Fox Washington news executive Bill Sammon as saying.

The details were included in a trove of private communications unearthed by lawyers and contained in a redacted brief filed Thursday by Dominion Voting Systems. Dominion claims in a $1.6 billion lawsuit that Fox aired allegations that Dominion had doctored the vote against Trump, even as it knew that was untrue. Fox says it was doing its job as a news organization by airing the accusations made by Trump and his allies.

Fox’s internal troubles began with a correct call: declaring on election night 2020 that Democrat Joe Biden had beaten Trump in Arizona. The declaration, coming ahead of other news organizations, infuriated the president and his fans.

The backlash was noted in internal emails. “Holy cow, our audience is mad at the network,” said one, quoted by Dominion. “They’re FURIOUS,” said another.

Five days after the election, Fox News founder Rupert Murdoch communicated to Suzanne Scott, Fox News CEO, that the channel was “getting creamed by CNN. Guess our viewers don’t want to watch it,” according to court papers.

Fox News tumbled from first to third in the news network ratings between the Nov. 3, 2020, election and Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, according to the Nielsen company. Meanwhile, thousands of Fox viewers flocked to the more conservative Newsmax, where prime-time viewership shot from 58,000 the week before the election to 568,000 the week after.

The change shook the foundations of a network that had consistently led in the news ratings for the better part of two decades.

Fox roared back into the lead by tacking more sharply to the right after Biden took office. But in the immediate aftermath of the election, there was genuine worry at its New York headquarters.

Almost immediately, the network went on “war footing,” Dominion said, quoting a Fox executive.

“Do the executives understand how much credibility and trust we’ve lost with our audience?” Fox prime-time star Tucker Carlson wrote to his producer, according to Dominion’s brief. “We’re playing with fire, for real … an alternative like newsmax could be devastating to us.”

Dominion contends that Fox executives made the decision to push false narratives to entice their audience back, and points to claims made by Trump allies like attorney Sidney Powell on programs hosted by Maria Bartiromo and Lou Dobbs.

On Nov. 9, Fox News Channel’s Neil Cavuto cut away from a news conference held by Trump aide Kayleigh McEnaney when she began to air unsubstantiated allegations. A Fox executive complained in the aftermath that Cavuto was damaging the network’s brand.

The court filings also detailed two instances where Fox News reporters were attacked internally for tweeting fact checks. In one, reporter Jacqui Heinrich tweeted that there was no evidence any voting system deleted, lost or changed votes.

“Please get her fired,” Carlson messaged fellow anchor Sean Hannity, saying Heinrich was hurting the company, according to Dominion’s filing. Heinrich’s tweet was later deleted, the court papers said.

She later retweeted the fact-check, removing the names of Hannity and Dobbs.

Carlson himself tried to “thread the needle,” Dominion said. It noted how he publicly stated that Powell had never provided evidence to back up her claims of fraud. “On the other hand, he did not say what he believed privately — that she was lying,” Dominion said.

Fox said many of its specific responses will come in a document that Superior Court Judge Eric Davis in Delaware ordered sealed until Feb. 27. Fox said Dominion had mischaracterized the record and cherry-picked quotes stripped of key context.

“There will be a lot of noise and confusion generated by Dominion and their opportunistic private equity owners, but the core of this case remains about freedom of the press and freedom of speech, which are fundamental rights afforded by the Constitution and protected by New York Times v. Sullivan,” Fox said.

If either side can persuade Davis to grant summary judgment in its favor, the case will end without a jury trial. If not, the trial is scheduled to begin in mid-April.

As a result of Sullivan and cases that followed, such defamation cases against journalists are usually very hard to prove, and Fox is also arguing that Dominion is grossly overestimating any economic damage to the company.

Ultimately, though, the case is pulling back the curtain on what happened at the nation’s largest media outlet that appeals to conservative viewers at a pivotal time at the network’s, and the nation’s history.

“Privately, Fox hosts and executives knew that Donald Trump lost the election and that he needed to concede,” Dominion argued in the papers released Thursday. “But Fox viewers heard a different story — repeatedly.”

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Is DeSantis darkening Florida’s sunny open-records laws?

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Florida has long been known for sunshine — not only the warm rays that brighten its beaches but also the light of public scrutiny afforded by some of the nation’s strongest meetings and records laws.

Although years of rollbacks have gradually clouded the impact, advocates are ringing alarms that this year presents the greatest threat to transparency yet in the state that coined the name “Sunshine Law” for its open-government rules.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, weighing a presidential bid, is pursuing a home-state agenda that could make it harder for people to learn what public officials are doing or to speak out against them. In an unprecedented move for the Sunshine State, DeSantis has claimed an executive right to keep key government records secret. He’s also seeking to weaken a nearly 60-year-old national legal precedent protecting journalists and others who publish critical comments about public figures.

Florida’s Republican-led Legislature appears eager to carry out his vision. As their annual session began last week, lawmakers filed dozens of bills that would add to the state’s lengthy list of open-government exceptions.

“The state of sunshine is in peril,” warned Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, who has been tracking the state’s public access laws for three decades.

DeSantis, who is expected to launch a presidential bid following the session, has thrilled conservative activists nationwide by leaning into fights against the GOP’s perceived political adversaries: public health officials, so-called “woke” leaders in business and public education — and the press.

Former President Donald Trump, a potential rival and fellow Floridian, also is well-known for lambasting the press — describing the U.S. media as “the enemy of the people.” Such criticism often plays well within the modern-day Republican Party, where mainstream media are perceived to side with the interests of Democrats and liberals.

But it runs contrary to Florida’s historic reputation as a place where reporters — and curious members of the public — can unearth government data and documents that shed light on the decisions made by elected officials.

Florida’s law making government records open to public inspection dates to 1909, long before similar measures emerged in many other states. It added a Sunshine Law requiring public meetings in 1967. Then, in 1992, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a public right to access records and meetings. A decade later, as lawmakers were adding exemptions, voters approved another a constitutional amendment making it harder for legislators to approve future exceptions.

Florida newspapers launched the first “Sunshine Sunday” in 2002 to highlight the importance of public access to government information. That one-day event has since grown to an annual Sunshine Week observed nationally by media and First Amendment advocates.

As this year’s Sunshine Week began Sunday, lawmakers in state capitols were pursuing a mixture of proposals — some excluding more government records from public inspection; others increasing the ability of people to keep an eye on their government. But nowhere, perhaps, have Sunshine Week issues garnered as much attention as in Florida — due largely to DeSantis’ powerful platform to voice his complaints about the media.

Last month, DeSantis hosted a livestreamed “panel discussion on defamation” while attempting to build support for his plan to make it easier to bring defamation lawsuits against the media or people who post things on the internet about public officials and employees.

“You smear somebody, it’s false, and you didn’t do your homework, you’re going to have to be held accountable for that,” DeSantis said while concluding the event. “Hopefully, you’ll see more and more of that across the country.”

DeSantis is seeking to undercut a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision that shielded news outlets from libel judgments unless proven that they were published with “actual malice” — knowing that something was false or acting with “reckless disregard” to whether it was true. Florida legislation to carry out DeSantis’ plan would make it unnecessary to prove “actual malice” when the allegedly defamatory statements don’t relate to the reason why someone is a public figure.

Other provisions of the legislation would presume anonymous statements in news stories are false for the purposes defamation lawsuits and would treat accusations of racial, sexual or gender discrimination as intrinsically defamatory.

Petersen said such provisions appear to be a first nationally and could have a freezing effect on free speech.

But Republican state Rep. Alex Andrade, who is sponsoring the bill, said it is “a sincere attempt to try and fix the problems that exist in this type of law.”

“This bill would make it easier for someone who’s actually been harmed by a defamatory statement to pursue justice in Florida courts,” Andrade said.

The defamation legislation is just one of several DeSantis administration policies prompting concern among media organizations.

Earlier this year, a Florida trial judge upheld DeSantis’ assertion of “executive privilege” in refusing to turn over information requested under the state’s public-records law about his screening of potential state Supreme Court nominees. That case is being watched by national media organizations as it’s being appealed.

The Florida Constitution contains no specific mention of “executive privilege.” Neither does the U.S. Constitution, though courts have upheld the president’s prerogative to withhold documents to protect the confidentiality of advice received in the decision-making process. Governors in Oklahoma, Tennessee and Washington also have previously asserted the privilege.

Another DeSantis administration policy has slowed access to some public records. Television station WKMG reported last month that public records requests to some state agencies were being routed for review to the governor’s office, sometimes delaying their release by weeks or months.

Public protests at the Capitol also have been limited. Under a DeSantis administration rule that took effect March 1, demonstrations at the Capitol Complex are only permitted outdoors. Requests to use space in the Capitol Complex must come from state agencies, the Legislature or judiciary, must be “consistent with the agency’s official purpose” and cannot include displays with “gratuitous violence or gore” that are “patently offensive to prevailing standards in the community.”

Florida’s open-government reputation already was fading before DeSantis took office in 2019, but that trend has gained steam. In his first year, lawmakers expanded the list of personal details forbidden to be disclosed about various public officials. Last year, DeSantis signed a law shielding information about candidates for college and university presidencies.

This year, roughly five-dozen bills already have been filed proposing more open-government exemptions, Petersen said. Some of those would prohibit the agency that provides security for DeSantis from disclosing the governor’s travel arrangements — even after the fact.

Though DeSantis said he doesn’t support it, another bill filed this year would require bloggers to file periodic reports with the state if they are paid for posts about the governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet members or legislative officials.

The cumulative effect is that “open government and public records laws are very much under the gun right now,” said Bobby Block, executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, a Florida nonprofit that advocates for the public’s right to open government.

“Every year, we’re seeing the vast sweep of the original intention chiseled away – sometimes bit by bit, other times chuck by chuck,” Block said, “and it’s definitely not the way it used to be.”

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Missouri debates ban on LGBTQ education for all grades

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri lawmakers argued Wednesday over a bill that would ban most LGBTQ education subjects for all grades in the state’s public schools.

The proposal is modeled after a Florida education law passed last year, touted by supporters as protecting “parent’s rights” and dubbed by opponents as a “ Don’t Say Gay ” law.

The Missouri bill debated in a state House committee hearing would ban K-12 public school staff from teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation.

The Florida law only prohibits teaching those subjects from kindergarten through third grade, although any lessons on those topics for students of any grade are also banned if they are not age-appropriate.

“Exposure to such topics is inappropriate for children, creating confusion which may then cause doubt in their identities,” said Rep. Ann Kelley, a former teacher and the Republican sponsor of the Missouri bill. “It is not the place of the school to indoctrinate our children by exposing them to gender and sexual identity curriculums and courses.”

Kelley said her bill will need to be amended so it does not limit teaching for Advanced Placement courses.

In response to a question from a committee member, Kelley said she assumes that under her bill, educators would be banned from explaining the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges that legalized same-sex marriage.

“It seems like the things that you want to prohibit are targeted to one particular group that you find disfavorable,” Republican Rep. Phil Christofanelli told Kelley.

Democratic Rep. Ian Mackey, a former teacher who is openly gay, asked Kelley if him “being gay in the classroom” and not hiding that from students would be limited under her bill.

“Did you ever inform your students on your beliefs?” Kelley asked Mackey.

“They did know I was gay,” Mackey said. “They would see my wedding ring and they would ask about it, and I would say I have a husband.”

A committee vote on the bill was not scheduled as of Wednesday afternoon.

The White House, Disney, and LGBTQ advocates criticized the passage of the Florida bill last year. Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the bill was a victory for parents and would prevent “indoctrination.”

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Secretary Blinken to Honor International Women of Courage Awardees at White House Ceremony

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WASHINGTON, DC – Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden will honor a group of extraordinary women at the 17th annual International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award Ceremony on Wednesday, March 8, at 2:00 p.m. The ceremony will take place at the White House for the first time in the award’s history.

The annual IWOC Award recognizes women from around the globe who have demonstrated exceptional courage, strength, and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equity and equality, often at great personal risk and sacrifice. Since 2007, the Department of State has recognized more than 180 women from more than 80 countries.

The ceremony will be pooled press and streamed live on whitehouse.gov/live and state.gov.

Following the IWOC ceremony, the awardees will participate in an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP), the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program, where they will meet with American counterparts in various cities throughout the country.

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