Fox News insiders are concerned that the network could face "potential legal action" from viewers over its misleading coverage of the new coronavirus, according to Vanity Fair's Gabe Sherman, though experts say a "viable claim" against the network is unlikely.
Sherman, the author of the Fox News exposé "The Loudest Voice in the Room" who frequently covers the conservative network, told MSNBC on Sunday that "there's a real concern inside the network that their early downplaying of the coronavirus actually exposes Fox News to potential legal action by viewers who maybe were misled and actually have died from this."
Sherman noted that polls show Republican views on issues like the coronavirus are "completely different" than "people who gather their news from a wide array of sources."
"Fox News tried to do their original playbook — which was dismiss it as a hoax, say that this is another partisan attempt by Democrats to hurt Donald Trump — and this was the case where they could not prevent reality," he said.
Sherman added that Fox viewers are only now "confronting what the rest of us have known since February and early March — is that this is a global pandemic that is unprecedented in American history."
The reporter pointed to the ousting of Fox Business host Trish Regan after her conspiratorial rant connecting panic over the coronavirus to impeachment as a sign the network was worried about its early coverage.
"I've heard Trish Regan's being taken off the air is, you know, reflective of this concern that Fox News is in big trouble by downplaying this virus, and The New York Times reported days ago that the Murdoch family was privately taking the coronavirus seriously," Sherman said. "The Murdochs, of course, own Fox News. So, they were taken personal steps to protect themselves, while anchors like Trish Regan and Sean Hannity were telling viewers that it's a hoax and putting themselves in potentially mortal danger. So I think this is a case where Fox's coverage, if it actually winds up being proved that people died because of it, this is a new terrain in terms of Fox being possibly held liable for their actions."
The network has seen a shift in tone in the time since President Donald Trump first declared a national emergency over the pandemic. The change comes after Fox hosts tried to downplay the threat posed by the virus by comparing it to gun violence in Chicago and falsely arguing that it was far less deadly than the regular flu.
As Fox hosts downplayed the risk, the Murdochs took precautions to protect themselves against the virus, and Fox News executives issued a memo announcing wide-ranging actions the network was taking to prevent their employees from getting sick.
Michael Bromwich, a former federal prosecutor and Justice Department inspector general, said the network had plenty of reason to worry.
"Fox is right to be concerned. Very concerned. This could be a legal bloodbath," he tweeted. "Discovery will undoubtedly show that its personnel were putting out falsely comforting information it knew to be false and misleading in order to sync up with [White House] messaging.
But other legal experts said it was unlikely that the network would face any legitimate legal action.
"I don't doubt some are worried but I don't think there is a viable claim that could be brought against Fox," attorney Bradley Moss wrote.
"Fox News has been grotesquely irresponsible but I struggle to imagine a plausible legal theory under which it might be sued here," Susan Hennessey, a legal analyst for CNN, agreed.
Law professor Eric Segall said that any lawsuit would "have to show actual malice or reckless disregard," which "could never be shown here."
"No one is going to hold liable TV news people for reporting what they think is the news relating to millions," he added. "No court would go for it."