NEW YORK — Things had started settling down following a tumultuous year at Fox News Channel before it was hit with a cover headline in the New York Daily News, “Fake News Channel,” and questions about the independence of its journalists on Wednesday.
A defamation lawsuit filed this week accuses the network of making up quotes and pushing a false story that benefits President Donald Trump, even inviting the chief executive into the editorial process.
In essence, Fox is accused of creating fake news to debunk a story Trump has complained is fake news.
“The charge is a very serious one, if substantiated,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, communications professor and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “It speaks to the credibility of Fox as a news organization.”
In a year, Fox has been hit by the forced departures of its late chairman, Roger Ailes, and most popular personality, Bill O’Reilly, following harassment charges. Ailes’ successor, Bill Shine, resigned, prime-time hosts Megyn Kelly and Greta Van Susteren left and there have been several sexual harassment and race discrimination lawsuits.
Yet the network’s conservative audience has remained mostly loyal. While not as dominant as it was before MSNBC’s resurgence in the past few months, Fox ranked as the most popular prime-time network on cable television in July for the fifth time in the past seven months, the Nielsen company said.
Fox hosts like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and the team on Trump’s favorite morning show “Fox & Friends” make no secret of their opinions, and those shows have strongly backed Trump in his first six months. Fox, though, is different from some politically oriented news organizations in maintaining a staff of respected journalists who try to play it straight — people like Shepard Smith, Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and John Roberts.
That’s the side of Fox that would be most damaged if the allegations are proven true, since they involved the reporting of an investigative news story on the network’s web site, not material from its opinion programs.
“Any news organization that has any aspirations of being bona fide expects the public to take what they are saying seriously, not that they are being fed something that is being made up,” said Paul Levinson, chairman of Fordham University’s communications department.
“I’m no fan of Fox, but I’m hoping this turns out not to be the case.”
The private detective who filed the lawsuit, Rod Wheeler, said he was paid to investigate the death of DNC staffer Seth Rich by a wealthy GOP donor anxious to establish a link between Rich and the leak of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The idea was if that could be done, it would end stories about Trump’s possible collusion with Russians.
The donor, Ed Butowsky, is depicted as being intimately involved in a story on the Rich case being prepared by Fox reporter Malia Zimmerman. Butowsky met with outgoing White House press secretary Sean Spicer to talk about the investigation’s findings. The lawsuit also claimed Trump read Zimmerman’s story two days before publication and was anxious to see it run — even backing the inclusion of two quotes from Wheeler that the investigator claims he never said.
Wheeler said that he complained to Zimmerman that he did not make the remarks that his investigation showed email contact between Rich and WikiLeaks, and that it appeared someone in power was blocking an investigation into Rich’s July 2016 death. He said Zimmerman told him by phone that she tried to remove his quotes, but was blocked by her bosses. He said that Butowsky told him that “one day you’re going to win an award for having said those things you didn’t say.”
Fox News president Jay Wallace said the network had no evidence Wheeler was misquoted but that it was still investigating. Since the story is more than two months old, Wheeler’s lawyer, Douglas Wigdor, questioned if the investigation was serious.
Fox said the accusation that Zimmerman’s story was published to help detract from coverage of the Russian collusion issue is “completely erroneous.” The White House has denied involvement in the story and Butowsky has said he has never met Trump. He has said that Wheeler is out for money. Zimmerman, a Los Angeles-based reporter, posted several pictures of her past journalism awards on her Facebook page Wednesday.
Fox said it has retained outside counsel and wouldn’t comment further on the case.
Fox, however, hasn’t specifically addressed the issue of any Trump administration involvement in the story. Reporters frequently get tips from people working out of their own self-interest, but don’t involve them in the editorial process. Generally, reporters don’t show news sources what they’ve written unless to specifically check a fact.
Wigdor said he would seek to depose both Trump and Spicer.
Wheeler is also likely to face his own credibility questions.
In an interview with Fox’s Hannity on the day the story was released, Wheeler said he had “very little communication at all” with Butowsky, but the lawsuit outlines several conversations and said they attended a meeting with Spicer together. In the interview, Wheeler also described an unnamed source who backed the Rich-WikiLeaks connection in Zimmerman’s article as “very credible,” although the lawsuit questions whether the source even exists.
He said on Hannity that he didn’t know the DNC staffer’s involvement for a fact, “but it sure appears that way.”
Wigdor said that Wheeler was careful in his choice of words and that he didn’t convey as fact things that he didn’t know.
If Wheeler needs a character witness for his case, however, he may want to rewind to the beginning of his interview with Hannity.
“I’ve known you for a long time, Rod,” Hannity said. “You’re a man of honor and integrity.”
Associated Press researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.