New Defamation Suit Against Fox Signals Continued Legal Threat

Fox News was hit on Wednesday with another defamation lawsuit, this one from a woman who said the network promoted lies about her that generated serious threats to her safety and harmed her career prospects.

The suit was filed on behalf of Nina Jankowicz, the former executive director of a short-lived Department of Homeland Security division assigned with coordinating efforts to monitor and address disinformation threats to national security. Right-wing pundits and politicians falsely portrayed her group as part of an Orwellian bid to control the speech and thought of ordinary Americans.

Ms. Jankowicz, a prominent specialist in Russian disinformation and online harassment, became the primary subject of their attacks. In 300 mentions over eight months on Fox last year, she was repeatedly demeaned and defamed in highly personal language, the lawsuit asserts. Hosts including Tucker Carlson, Maria Bartiromo and Sean Hannity said her job was “to silence anyone who criticizes the Biden administration” and possibly even, as Mr. Carlson warned, “get men with guns to tell you to shut up.”

The unit Ms. Jankowicz briefly headed, called the Disinformation Governance Board, had no such powers, or any direct authority to affect speech. The department created it to help unify and oversee existing efforts by its various divisions to monitor and defend against disinformation from foreign agents seeking to influence elections; cartels promoting human smuggling operations; and those seeking to undermine the government’s public health and safety efforts.

After Ms. Jankowicz resigned to escape the deluge of criticism — which had caused an abrupt suspension of the board’s activities — Fox hosts and guests falsely said she was fired, according to the suit.

“Even after achieving their stated goal of driving me out of government and ending the board, they kept using me as a punching bag,” Ms. Jankowicz said in an interview on Wednesday. “It shouldn’t be something we just accept — that the most powerful cable network in the world can attack individuals willy-nilly and not face any consequences after they ruin their lives.”

Ms. Jankowicz, 34, filed her suit in the same Delaware state court system where Dominion Voting lodged its $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News. The network settled that case for $787.5 million last month, avoiding a lengthy and bruising trial. (The Jankowicz suit is seeking unspecified damages.)

That deal represented a tacit acknowledgment that Fox’s promotion of falsehoods about election fraud in the 2020 election was wrongful. But it did not answer the question of whether Dominion would have been able to meet the high legal threshold required to prevail in defamation suits: proving that those who made the statements knew they were false or did not bother to find out.

Ms. Jankowicz would have to meet that same threshold. Fox declined to comment on Wednesday.

Her suit nevertheless represents a continued legal threat to the network, possibly made worse by Dominion’s lawsuit. The Dominion case produced reams of internal Fox News communications showing that various hosts and executives knew the claims against the company were indeed false.

Ms. Jankowicz’s suit specifically cites the Dominion case, saying Fox’s narrative about her “is consistent with Fox’s practices in other contexts, including in its election denialism and the related defamation of Dominion Voting Systems.’’

In a letter to Fox’s general counsel this week, Ms. Jankowicz’s lawyers requested that the network preserve all communications — including texts, notes and search histories — regarding her and her position on the board.

A lawyer for Ms. Jankowicz, Rylee Sommers-Flanagan, said in an interview that the Dominion case “signals that there is a path” for defamation lawsuits against the network. “Dominion shows us how egregious the internal conversations that are happening at Fox are; it shows us that Fox News has an absolute disregard for truth when it is related to their ratings.”

Fox maintained it did not show a reckless disregard for the truth in the Dominion case — that would have been determined at trial — but acknowledged in its settlement deal that the judge in the case ruled that the statements at issue in the suit were false.

All news organizations face their share of lawsuits, but the Dominion suit stood out for the strength of the case, the size of the settlement and its continued fallout: Fox is confronting two shareholder lawsuits relating to the Dominion case, and another suit alleging a hostile workplace from a former Carlson producer, Abby Grossberg.

It also helped lead to the cancellation of Mr. Carlson’s show. Mr. Carlson, currently seeking to break his contract with Fox — which allows the network to keep him on the bench while continuing to pay his salary — is one of nearly 40 hosts and guests mentioned in Ms. Jankowicz’s suit.

Aside from suggesting that Ms. Jankowicz was “the person that polices our thoughts,” as Mr. Hannity put it, a mix of hosts and guests keyed off a misleading video clip of her to falsely assert that she had a plan to “start editing your tweets,” as the Fox News host Jeanine Pirro had said.

At the time of its creation, the disinformation board also raised concerns among liberals, who questioned the powers such an office might have under a future Republican administration, but it fueled an overwhelming tsunami of partisan Republican attacks that continue to this day.

Much of it focused on Ms. Jankowicz. A onetime Fulbright fellow who advised the Ukraine government in 2017, she had written books about online attacks against women and Russian disinformation. She drew criticism from conservatives for raising questions about the validity of Hunter Biden’s laptop and for comments she made about Elon Musk’s bid to purchase Twitter.

In March the House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena to Ms. Jankowicz compelling her to testify about the short-lived board’s work.

Fox could argue that its relentless coverage of her role reflected the political debate over the issue. It did so, however, with language that described her as a lunatic, “janko-half-wicz,” a “useful idiot” and “the wicked witch,” according to the complaint.

According to Ms. Jankowicz’s lawsuit, Fox’s coverage “resulted in immediate online harassment and threats, which continue even now,” citing a litany of misogynistic, antisemitic and violent messages and a doxxing campaign.

“This has had an immense impact for my family. I don’t think our security will ever be the same,” Ms. Jankowicz said on Wednesday. “I want to make the point that this sort of disinformation and hate campaign doesn’t have a place in American media or American politics; that this isn’t what we stand for.”

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