Leadership at Fox News Media knows that Lou Dobbs has a thing for conspiracy theories. During his time at CNN, for instance, the well-known cable-news host fanned the racist smear that Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. In his subsequent years on the Fox Business Network, Dobbs has kept up the bad work: After he allowed a guest to spread anti-Semitic tropes involving philanthropist George Soros, a Fox Business executive had to issue a statement denouncing “Lou Dobbs Tonight.”

All of which is to say that Fox News has been on notice about Dobbs.

Then came Dec. 10, and a retraction demand from Smartmatic, an election technology and services company that has been trashed on Dobbs’s program since the presidential election. The letter runs 20 pages, fattened by all the examples in which Fox programs — not only Dobbs’s, but also those of Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro — alleged Smartmatic helped perpetrate election fraud on the American people.

“Fox News has engaged in a concerted disinformation campaign against Smartmatic,” says the letter. “Fox News told its millions of viewers and readers that Smartmatic was founded by Hugo Chávez, that its software was designed to fix elections, and that Smartmatic conspired with others to defraud the American people and fix the 2020 U.S. election by changing, inflating, and deleting votes.” The letter identified nine distinct false reporting strains, including that Smartmatic has corporate ties to Dominion Voting Systems (it does not); that it works with Venezuela to commit fraud (wrong again); that its technology was used to skew the 2020 election (software and technology supported by Smartmatic was used in only one county this year — Los Angeles County). And so on. (Fox News isn’t Smartmatic’s only target: The company has also sent retractions requests to Newsmax and One America News (OAN), two other outlets that have traded in the same conspiracies, and New York Times media columnist Ben Smith says litigation could damage their value).

The top peddlers of these ideas are Trump personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sidney Powell, a pro-Trump lawyer who peppered an instantly famous Nov. 19 news conference with outlandish claims about Dominion and Smartmatic. “What we are really dealing with here and uncovering more by the day is the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba and likely China in the interference with our elections here in the United States,” said Powell at the event. “The Dominion voting systems, the Smartmatic technology software and the software that goes in other computerized voting systems here in as well, not just Dominion, were created in Venezuela at the direction of Hugo Chávez to make sure he never lost an election after one constitutional referendum came out the way he did not want it to come out.”

Fox Business and Fox News allowed Powell to spew the same gibberish on their airwaves over and over again. On Nov. 16, for instance, she told Dobbs, “When the Smartmatic machines or when somebody is losing, like, for example, when [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro and his supporters realized the size of the other guy’s lead, they were worried that they were in crisis mode and would lose the election,” said Powell. “The Smartmatic machines used for voting in each state were connected to the Internet, reported their information over the Internet to the Caracas Control Center real time, so the decision was made to reset the entire system.”

And so it went, across Fox airwaves: Powell and Giuliani were invited to share their election-fraud fantasies with millions of people, while the hosts sat by and nodded. After Giuliani on the Nov. 18 edition of Dobbs’s program said Smartmatic was founded “for the specific purpose of fixing elections,” Dobbs responded, “Mm-hmm.”

For a change, the Erik Wemple Blog will spare its readers an exhaustive examination of Smartmatic’s possible defamation case against Fox. The thumbnail goes like this: The company might be considered a “public figure” under libel law, in which case it would have to prove that Fox acted with knowledge of the falsity of the statements or reckless disregard of the truth. That’s a tough thing to do, though Smartmatic attorney J. Erik Connolly tells Smith he’d argue that Smartmatic is not a public figure, in which case he’d have to prove only that Fox acted negligently.

That’s a slam dunk.

Fox has responded to the retraction request with a half-measure of compliance: It has run a video with election-technology expert Eddie Perez answering questions from a voice-from-nowhere on Dobbs’s and Pirro’s programs as well as “Sunday Morning Futures,” Bartiromo’s Sunday show. Though Perez’s answers debunk some falsehoods promoted so diligently on Fox News programming, the presentation falls far short of the deep, direct and far-ranging retraction demanded by Smartmatic.

Fox’s opinion hosts have often boasted that no one tells them what to put on their shows. Looks like Smartmatic and Connolly have at least changed that.

And that’s the whole point here. Fox’s approach to opinion hosts has long been “Say what you want, just keep the ratings up." Several of the network’s scandals of recent years can be traced to this laissez-faire approach to broadcasting: Tucker Carlson’s assessment that immigrants make the United States “dirtier,” that white supremacy is a “hoax,” etc.; Sean Hannity’s indulgence of the Seth Rich slander; Laura Ingraham making fun of Parkland, Fla., mass-shooting survivor David Hogg; and so much more.

Now look at what’s happening: Fox management — from Fox Business Network President Lauren Petterson, to Fox News Media President Jay Wallace to Fox News CEO Suzanne Scott, all the way up to Fox Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch and his son Lachlan — have refused to uphold standards of decency and journalism. That has created a void for the legal system: If company executives won’t police the product, outside lawyers will.

Fox News has at least one tried-and-true defense — namely, that no one takes its material seriously. It used that tack in a 2019 defamation suit from former Playboy playmate Karen McDougal against Carlson. A federal judge ruled in that case, “Fox persuasively argues … that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes.” Boldface added to highlight the versatility of this sentence: Just insert the name of any Fox opinion host, and voila!

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