A slander lawsuit brought against Fox News by a woman who says she had an affair with Donald Trump has taken a strange turn, with the network now claiming that host Tucker Carlson is not expected to present his audience with facts – even when he says he’s doing just that.
The network’s lawyers are fighting a suit from Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who alleges she had an affair with Donald Trump. She was paid $150,000 not to disclose her story by the parent company of the National Enquirer, a payment the company later admitted was made to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
The lawsuit revolves around a December 2018 edition of Mr Carlson’s show, in which the host accused her of “extorting” Donald Trump along with Stephanie Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels).
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“Remember the facts of the story,” said Mr Carlson, “these are undisputed. Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money.
“Now that sounds like a classic case of extortion. Yet for whatever reason, Trump caves to it, and he directs Michael Cohen to pay the ransom. Now, more than two years later, Trump is a felon for doing this. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.
“Oh, but you’re not a federal prosecutor on a political mission. If you were a federal prosecutor on a political mission, you would construe those extortion payments as campaign contributions.”
There is no evidence that Ms McDougal and Ms Clifford approached Mr Trump with threats, or that they extorted him in exchange for his silence, and the story the payments made to them were well-established in the public domain by the time Mr Carlson made the statements Ms McDougal is suing him over.
Yet despite Mr Carlson’s statement that “the facts of the story” are “undisputed”, Fox News’s attorney, Erin Murphy, told the judge hearing the case that “there’s no statement that a reasonable viewer would understand in this context to state something provably false” – and argued that viewers simply do not consider Mr Carlson a source of factual news.
Calling the monologue clearly “hyperbolic” and describing it as an opinion protected by the first amendment, she posed a rhetorical question: “Would a reasonable viewer be coming here and thinking this is where I’m going to be hearing the news of the day?
“What we’re talking about here, it’s not the front page of the New York Times. It’s Tucker Carlson Tonight, which is a commentary show.”
Ms McDougal’s lawyers’ complaint focuses not just on the falsity of what Mr Carlson said, but on the “malice” he displayed in saying it.
“Carlson failed to research or investigate how or why Trump caused McDougal to be paid $150,000. Nevertheless, he asserted that his statements were based on ‘undisputed facts’.
“After listening or watching the show, a reasonable viewer would have concluded that the statements about McDougal were fact and that she is a criminal that engaged in illegal activity against the would-be president of the United States.
“The persistent factual falsity, the actual malice, reckless disregard for the truth and the inherently defamatory impact of falsely accusing McDougal of criminality is slander per se and mandates redress.”