Fox News, suddenly worried about a defamation suit, forced to debunk its own false election claims

The Trump campaign, Sidney Powell, Newsmax and One America News Network have been threatened by similar lawsuits

By Igor Derysh
December 21, 2020 9:24PM (UTC)
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Lou Dobbs (Fox Business)

Fox News and Fox Business just aired multiple segments debunking false election claims made on their shows for weeks after the voting technology company Smartmatic recently threatened to sue the network — along with fellow right-wing cable channels OANN and Newsmax — for defamation.

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs and Fox News hosts Maria Bartiromo and Jeanine Pirro aired the same segment debunking false claims that Smartmatic was involved in a scheme to switch votes from President Donald Trump to President-elect Joe Biden over the weekend. The segment comes in response to a new lawsuit threat from Smartmatic over several segments in which Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell, and the hosts pushed the baseless conspiracy theory even though the company was not involved in any elections in the contested swing states.

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Powell, who reportedly met with President Donald Trump on Friday amid discussions about naming her a special counsel to investigate unfounded allegations of voter fraud, has for weeks pushed a bizarre conspiracy theory that former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez had Dominion create software to flip votes that was later used in the 2020 election to flip votes from Trump in a scheme funded by China, Cuba, and others. There is no evidence to back her claim and the company has threatened to sue her for defamation. Fox News host Tucker Carlson criticized Powell on air for failing to provide any evidence to back her claim.

Giuliani issued a statement distancing Trump's legal team from Powell after she claimed that Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and the CIA were involved in the scheme despite holding a joint news conference with her days earlier. Giuliani also advised Trump against appointing Powell as a special counsel, according to The New York Times. But he has likewise pushed a conspiracy theory about voting machines, even requesting that the Department of Homeland Security seize voting machines in certain states, which it refused to do, according to the Times report.

Giuliani has falsely claimed on Twitter that Dominion was actually a "front" for Smartmatic, even though the two companies appear to have no ties.

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The two attorneys repeated these baseless allegations on the air, as did Dobbs, prompting Smartmatic to demand a retraction and threaten to sue, according to The Washington Post.

"Fox News has engaged in a concerted disinformation campaign against Smartmatic. Fox News told its millions of viewers and readers that Smartmatic was founded by [the late Venezuelan President] 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 company's attorney said in a letter to the network, calling for corrections to "be published on multiple occasions" during prime time shows to "match the attention and audience targeted with the original defamatory publications."

Fox News pointed Salon to the segment aired on the three shows but declined to comment further.

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The segment featured Eddie Perez, a voting expert at the OSET Institute in Palo Alto, a nonpartisan election technology research and development nonprofit, who was not informed about the nature of the segment before being interviewed.

"There was nothing in any of the preliminary conversations that I had with Fox News that gave me any indication that Smartmatic would be a matter of conversation," Perez told CNN. "It was never mentioned that this was going to be a discussion about Smartmatic or even claims about private vendors. I was anticipating a broader discussion about the debate around the election, election integrity."

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Perez said it was "important" to discuss the topics on Fox because its hosts made allegations "that are speculative and not based in fact, many of which are harmful to enhancing public confidence in the legitimacy of election outcomes."

Perez explained in the segment that Smartmatic is "for all intents and purposes" a completely separate company from Dominion and refuted Giuliani's claim that the company sends votes overseas to be tabulated. Smartmatic, he explained, created software that was used only in Los Angeles County and none of the states where Trump has challenged the results based on unfounded claims of fraud.

Smartmatic, which was founded by Venezuelan engineer Antonio Mugica, also sent similar lawsuit threats to Newsmax and One America News Network, which have repeatedly amplified Trumpworld's baseless allegations.

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Mugica told The New York Times' Ben Smith that the conspiracy theory was so "absurd" he thought it was "not going to have legs" but the claims quickly went from social media fodder to being amplified by the president's lawyer and conservative hosts on national television.

Smartmatic has been mentioned on Fox News and Fox Business at least 118 times and Dominion was mentioned 792 times, according to Smith.

Mugica retained attorney Erik Connolly, who won the largest defamation settlement in history after getting a payout of at least $177 million to a beef producer who sued ABC News for describing its "lean finely textured beef" as "pink slime" but now targets "red slime," lies spread by Republican officials, according to Smith.

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"We've gotten to this point where there's so much falsity that is being spread on certain platforms, and you may need an occasion where you send a message, and that's what punitive damages can do in a case like this," Connolly told the outlet.

Dominion has also retained prominent libel lawyer Tom Clare and threatened to sue the Trump campaign and Powell if they do not retract their "false statements" and "damaging falsehoods" about the company.

Longtime First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams told Smith that the lawsuits threats from the two companies were "extremely powerful."

"The repeated accusations against both companies are plainly defamatory and surely have done enormous reputational and financial harm to both," he said, adding that it was "too early" to predict how the cases will end but "it is not too early to say that they would be highly dangerous to those sued."

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Mugica argued that the false claims were dangerous to his company too since it could affect its business.

"This potentially could destroy it all," he said.

OAN has not commented on the lawsuit. Newsmax said in a statement to Smith that the network "has never made a claim of impropriety about Smartmatic, its ownership or software" and that it was just providing a "forum for public concerns and discussion," but a host did "clarify" the network's coverage on Monday.

It's unclear whether the Fox segments satisfied the lawyers' demands. Asked if he would settle for an apology from the networks, Mugica demurred.

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"Is the apology going to reverse the false belief of tens of millions of people who believe in these lies?" he told Smith. "Then I could be satisfied."


Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is a staff writer at Salon. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

Tips/Email: iderysh@salon.com Twitter: @IgorDerysh

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