Fox News Settlement Signals End of Loose-Cannon Hosts

From a Washington Post column by Jim Geraghty headlined “The Fox News settlement signals the end of an era for loose-cannon hosts”:

A new mentality almost certainly has taken hold at every cable-news network: When what-will-they-say-next hosts speak, what they say next could help prompt a billion-dollar defamation lawsuit. Watch for cable-news outfits to decommission their loose-cannon hosts — not to squelch free speech but to avoid wrecking revenue.

That’s one takeaway from the Dominion Voting Systems’ now-settled defamation lawsuit against Fox News over its promotion of 2020 “stolen election” allegations. I’m not saying that Lou Dobbs, the loosest of loose cannons, single-handedly cost his former employer $787.5 million. But when Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis ruled in the summary judgment portion of the suit, determining which statements qualified as defamatory false claims of fact, one host’s name kept coming up, over and over again.

Fox News’s lawyer in the case, Paul Clement, intended to argue, among other points, that Fox News employees were protected by the neutral-report privilege, the notion that covering a public figure’s false accusations was not inherently defamatory, so long as it was newsworthy.

But the judge rejected that argument, pointing to 20 examples of false assertions of fact — 12 from Dobbs, either from on-air statements from his Fox Business Network program or Dobbs’s own tweets. Dobbs made the job of Dominion’s lawyers much easier.

Fox Business Network dumped Dobbs and his program in February 2021, just a day after Smartmatic, another voting-machine company, filed a separate defamation lawsuit (which is still pending).

Certain qualities made Dobbs a popular host on Fox Business Network — and before that, CNN, even though both Dobbs and CNN would probably prefer if everyone forgot their 27 years together over two stints. To put it generously, Dobbs has for years played fast and loose with the facts. He claimed that illegal immigrants casting votes had an “immense impact” on the outcome of the 2018 midterm elections. He argued that “the invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans” and implied that illegal immigrants were causing an outbreak of leprosy in the United States.

In December 2020, the Fox News legal department apparently woke up and realized the risk, forcing Dobbs to run a jaw-dropping fact-check of his own claims, essentially declaring that what he and his guests had been telling viewers for weeks had no basis in fact. But by that point, legally, the damage was done.

Hyperbolic, bombastic, in-your-face, mind-melding with Donald Trump and only intermittently accurate — no doubt, the Dobbs style attracted viewers to the lesser-known, business-focused secondary channel of Fox News. But that same style and judgment led the host to wholeheartedly embrace and endorse Trump’s most outlandish conspiracy theories — eventually helping pave the way for the defamation lawsuit and the staggering settlement.

By that measure, Dobbs is the worst cable news host in television history, making short-lived and best-forgotten programs such as “Alan Keyes Is Making Sense” on MSNBC or Eliot Spitzer’s “In the Arena” on CNN look like triumphs.

Now Fox News and the other major cable news networks face a difficult question: Is a personality like that, sometimes speaking off-the-cuff on live television five nights a week, worth the risk of a defamation suit? Fox News is hardly the only network with anchors who can be erratic, on and off the air. A recent headline from Variety: “Don Lemon’s Misogyny at CNN, Exposed: Malicious Texts, Mocking Female Co-Workers and ‘Diva-Like Behavior.’” Think, too, of Chris Cuomo, formerly of CNN and now with NewsNation.

Sure, a larger-than-life, shoot-from-the-hip personality can attract a bigger audience, which means the rates charged to advertisers can be higher. But the Dominion settlement makes those higher advertising rates look like chump change. In 2017, Tucker Carlson had the highest ad rates of any cable news host, with an average price of $13,779 for a 30-second spot. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to sell enough advertising at 10 times that price to match the $787 million payout.

A slightly less bombastic host, who is less likely to potentially defame a company or individual, now looks like the better deal in the long run. The risk for a cable news network isn’t that the host will lie or say something not true — unfortunately, hosts and guests on cable news lie all the time, with little consequence — but that a host or guest will say things that may meet the legal standard of defamation about a potential plaintiff with deep pockets. Fox News didn’t want to go to court to find out if the defamation standard would apply.

In recent days, another pugnacious Fox News host, Dan Bongino, parted ways with the channel. He said on his podcast on Thursday that “there’s no acrimony … we just couldn’t come to terms on an extension.” But the channel may have felt a new level of anxiety about retaining the host of a show called “Unfiltered.”

Jim Geraghty is National Review’s senior political correspondent, where he writes the daily “Morning Jolt” newsletter, among other writing duties. He’s the author of the novel “The Weed Agency” (a Washington Post bestseller), the nonfiction “Heavy Lifting” with Cam Edwards and “Voting to Kill,” and the Dangerous Clique series of thriller novels.

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