The reason that Sarah Palin lost her libel suit against The New York Times was that the Times’ extraordinarily sloppy editorial page editor, James Bennet, was extraordinarily sloppy. (In an unrelated matter, Bennet left the paper after it was revealed that he hadn’t even bothered to read an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton suggesting that violent protesters be gunned down in the streets.)
Under the Supreme Court’s 1964 Times v. Sullivan standard, a public figure such as Palin can’t win a libel suit unless she can show that false, defamatory information about her was published with “actual malice” — that is, it was published in the full knowledge that it was false, or that the publication strongly suspected it was false.
That’s what makes the latest revelations in Dominion Voting Systems’ libel suit against Fox News so mind-boggling. As The New York Times reports, internal communications show that Fox stars such as Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham were fully aware that Donald Trump was lying about his claims that the 2020 election had been stolen. Yet they boosted those lies anyway, whose voting machines were a principal target of Trump and his allies. Dominion claims that Fox damaged its reputation and harmed its business.
As the Times story notes, Fox doubled down on the Trump camp’s claims after initially accepting his defeat — a move that resulted in many of its viewers shifting to even farther-right cable outlets like Newsmax and One America News. Fox wanted those viewers back, damn it. In a particularly revealing passage, we learn that Carlson wanted a Fox News journalist fired for tweeting the truth because it might harm Fox’s ratings:
On Nov. 12, in a text chain with Ms. Ingraham and Mr. Hannity, Mr. Carlson pointed to a tweet in which a Fox reporter, Jacqui Heinrich, fact-checked a tweet from Mr. Trump referring to Fox broadcasts and said there was no evidence of voter fraud from Dominion.
“Please get her fired,” Mr. Carlson said. He added: “It needs to stop immediately, like tonight. It’s measurably hurting the company. The stock price is down. Not a joke.” Ms. Heinrich had deleted her tweet by the next morning.
Ironically, right-wing figures such as Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch have all suggested that it might be time to get rid of the actual malice standard, which erects a nearly impossible barrier for public officials and public figures who want to sue media companies.
Under ordinary circumstances, Fox would be a prime beneficiary of that standard. Trouble is, the new revelations show that even Times v. Sullivan may prove insufficient to protect Fox from Dominion’s lawsuit. As Bill Grueskin of the Columbia Journalism School put it on Twitter: