Opinion

Media Censors and Torts of Outrage

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Posted: May 20, 2020 2:10 PM
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
Media Censors and Torts of Outrage

Source: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File

Censoring doctors and scientists who offer medical opinions that differ from the U.S. government’s official policies? It could never happen here, right? Or a major media outlet being threatened through a court action into silencing guests who don’t sing from the same sheet music as top government health bureaucrats? Surely, that only happens in places like the former Soviet Union, right? If you ever wake up and wonder what happened to that beacon of freedom you knew and loved called “America,” you’re not alone.

A remarkable lawsuit was recently filed against Fox News by an organization called WASHLITE, which makes the amazing claim that Fox News is not entitled to First Amendment protections in discussions surrounding the novel coronavirus and how it should be handled.

“LITE” is a fitting syllable for this organization’s acronym, which reputedly stands for “Washington League for Transparency and Ethics.” As legal arguments go, I think my lawyer friends might consider this one among the most lightweight they’ve seen.

One might laugh off this lawsuit. It is risible, after all. In its complaint filed in King County Superior Court in the State of Washington, which also named Comcast, Rupert Murdoch, and AT&T TV as defendants, WASHLITE alleged that defendants “disseminated false, erroneous, and incomplete information, which was reasonably relied upon by the public and which had the effect of delaying and interfering with the implementation of effective mitigation and countermeasures against the virus.”

The complaint specifically identifies Sean Hannity and Trish Regan’s programs on Fox, accusing them of having acted “in bad faith to willfully and maliciously disseminate false information denying and minimizing the danger posed by the spread of the novel Coronavirus, or Covid-19, which is now recognized as an international pandemic.”

No doubt warming the cockles of government bureaucrats’ hearts everywhere, the plaintiffs alleged that Fox’s “campaign of deception and depraved actions continue to create uncertainty and distrust surrounding the conduct of public officials to contain and mitigate the spread of the virus in order to save thousands, if not millions, of human lives.”

One must never question the conduct of public officials in the Age of the Wuhan Virus, don’t you know.

And in case the subtlety of their other arguments was lost on readers, WASHLITE alleged that “Defendants committed the Tort of Outrage by intentionally and recklessly acting in a heinous and outrageous manner far beyond the pale of decent and civilized conduct, which conduct caused reasonably foreseeable severe mental and emotional distress.”

WASHLITE sought declaratory and injunctive relief from the court under the Consumer Protection Act against Fox et al, a “formal, clear and ringing retraction of Defendants’ representations that the virus is a hoax,” and asked the court in essence to prohibit Fox from ever claiming that Covid-19 is a hoax in the future.

Putting aside the claim that Fox News ever declared Covid-19 to be a “hoax,” which it refutes in a 76-page (with appendices) motion to dismiss the WASHLITE lawsuit, Fox argues that the only “deception” occurring was in WASHLITE’s complaint for accusing Fox of labelling the virus a hoax, other than using the term to comment on efforts by others to exploit the pandemic. As Fox argues, “the claims here are frivolous because the statements at issue are core political speech on matters of public concern.”

Stunningly, WASHLITE argued in its response to Fox News’ motion to dismiss its lawsuit that private cable news channels do not enjoy the same First Amendment protections of freedom of the press as, for example, the Washington Post.  

Wow. Good luck with that argument.

As this legal tussle plays itself out, we should realize that there is a larger issue at play in WASHLITE’s meritless lawsuit.

While it should be concerning that any organization would attempt to use the legal process to shut down voices on a media outlet that offers dissenting opinions on how properly to address a public health concern, it is doubly concerning that social media behemoths like YouTube and Facebook are acting in the same spirit as WASHLITE by unilaterally removing videos and other content that they likewise feel are contrary to the “approved” government approaches to this national disaster.

This is no small thing. Liberal media giants like NBC, CNN, ABC News, The New York Times, Washington Post and others filed friend-of-the-court briefs through their representative trade associations, the NCTA and RCFP, siding with Fox News in the lawsuit. That is to the good.

But these liberal media outlets should be equally disturbed that YouTube and Facebook are censoring the views of Bakersfield physicians Daniel Erickson and Artin Massihi by banning a video they made, because they disagree with many of Dr. Anthony Fauci’s Covid-19 policies. The media titans should also be concerned that YouTube banned a video by former Rockefeller University epidemiologist and bio-statistician Dr. Knut M. Wittkowski, because he sees Dr. Fauci’s policies as worsening the pandemic’s effects.  (His must-see video is now available at the website of the American Institute for Economic Research, here.)

While YouTube and Facebook are private entities that have the right to control the content that appears on their sites, the larger issue that should concern us all is the fundamental nature of their censoring actions.  Suppressing the scientific and public policy opinions of informed, knowledgeable individuals who happen to disagree with “official policy” is no less odious today than it was when Pope Urban VIII persecuted Galileo Galilei 400 years ago for arguing that the earth revolved around the sun, rather than vice versa.

We must always be vigilant when private organizations use coercion to suppress those whose views don’t conform to those of the state. There is a reason that Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.”   

William F. Marshall has been an intelligence analyst and investigator in the government, private, and non-profit sectors for more than 30 years. He is a senior investigator for Judicial Watch, Inc., and a contributor to Townhall, American Thinker, and The Federalist. Follow him on Twitter at @BillMarshallDC1. (The views expressed are the author’s alone, and not necessarily those of Judicial Watch.)