CLAIM

The Fox News Channel won a 2004 court case allowing the cable channel to lie to viewers.

RATING

ORIGIN

Rumors have circulated since at least 2009 claiming that the Fox News cable television channel fought successfully in court for the right to lie, misinform, or deceive viewers. The claim that Fox News legally won the “right to lie” has been repeated across the internet despite its being factually inaccurate on more than one level.

First, the case from which the rumor stemmed resulted in a Florida appeals court ruling in February 2003, not 2004. More germane to the rumor, however, is the fact that the case at hand did not involve the national Fox News Channel; rather, it was a breach of contract lawsuit filed by two reporters against their former employer, Tampa Bay television station WTVT. (The situation was somewhat more complicated because WTVT was an affiliate of the Fox television network and was also owned by Fox, but the Fox television network and the Fox News Channel are two distinctly different entities.)

The legal battle to which the rumor refers was about a husband-and-wife reporting team, Jane Aker and Steve Wilson, who in 1996 put together a story about the use of the Monsanto-produced synthetic bovine growth hormone (BGH) Posilac by Florida dairy farmers. WTVT’s management asserted that the reporters’ BGH piece was alarmist and one-sided and ordered the reporters to edit their story to produce a more “balanced” piece. Aker and Wilson defied those orders; as a result, the BGH story never aired, and the pair were terminated by WTVT in 1997.

The two reporters sued the station for breach of contract and retaliatory firing the following year, maintaining that they had been unfairly terminated from their jobs for “resisting WTVT’s attempts to distort or suppress the BGH story” at the behest of Fox corporate and Monsanto, and that the station’s management had fired them in retaliation over their threats to file a complaint about WTVT’s “deliberate news distortion” to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC):

In September 1997, WTVT notified Akre and Wilson that it was exercising its option to terminate their employment contracts without cause. Akre and Wilson responded in writing to WTVT threatening to file a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) alleging that the station had “illegally” edited the still unfinished BGH report in violation of an FCC policy against federally licensed broadcasters deliberately distorting the news. The parties never resolved their differences regarding the content of the story, and consequently, the story never aired.

In April 1998, Akre and Wilson sued WTVT alleging, among other things, claims under the whistle-blower’s statute. Those claims alleged that their terminations had been in retaliation for their resisting WTVT’s attempts to distort or suppress the BGH story and for threatening to report the alleged news distortion to the FCC. Akre also brought claims for declaratory relief and for breach of contract. After a four-week trial, a jury found against Wilson on all of his claims. The trial court directed a verdict against Akre on her breach of contract claim, Akre abandoned her claim for declaratory relief, and the trial court let her whistle-blower claims go to the jury. The jury rejected all of Akre’s claims except her claim that WTVT retaliated against her in response to her threat to disclose the alleged news distortion to the FCC. The jury awarded Akre $425,000 in damages.

Another common misconception is that Fox News invoked First Amendment protections in order to retain the “right to lie” during the lengthy legal battle between the couple and the Florida Fox affiliate. There was no mention of any such claim in the appeals court decision, and Akre herself does not corroborate it. Ultimately, the FCC concluded in 2007 that the conflict between Akre and Wilson and the affiliate boiled down to an “editorial dispute … rather than a deliberate effort by [WTVT] to distort news.”

The “right to lie” claims are similar to another false story about Fox News’ trustworthiness, that the network was banned in Canada because it does not meet stringent Canadian broadcast standards for truthfulness.

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