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Column: Trust and democracy

For the Valley News
Published: 11/28/2022 3:25:20 PM
Modified: 11/28/2022 3:25:05 PM

Nobody has a monopoly on truth. Therefore, the First Amendment, in essence, says: speak up fearlessly so that truth might emerge. In the marketplace of ideas, when robust and uninhibited discussion about public issues leads to inaccurate information or misinformation, the remedy is not censorship or suppression of the information however outrageous it may be.

Fighting relentlessly against falsehood is the only way, but it requires people of tremendous moral courage, time and patience, and financial resources to dig out the truth and punish the liar. The January 6th Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives is an exemplar of the collective moral courage necessary to establish truth, so American democracy can renew itself.

Donald Trump and Liz Cheney are both the offspring of American democracy and historically it has always been a struggle between such people. In closed authoritarian societies, if a lie is repeated 10 times, as the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels asserted, it will become believable; but not for long as the post-war Germans discovered. My Pillow guy Mike Lindell, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others have lately made a similar discovery.

At the core of American democracy is a dynamic system of fundamental rights that empowers individuals, limits government, and decentralizes and distributes power. But no fundamental right is absolute because your right to free speech might interfere with someone’s right to a fair trial, invade someone’s privacy and cause emotional harm, or ruin someone’s business reputation. If the First Amendment’s broad tolerance for all kinds and shades of speech leads to defamation or damages someone’s reputation, security or well-being, the price can be very high.

The conspiracy theorist and the Infowars host Alex Jones found out that the First Amendment does not protect the reckless disregard of truth, deliberately telling lies, or what the Supreme Court called “actual malice.” A Connecticut jury ordered Alex Jones to pay $965 million in damages to the Sandy Hook Elementary School families for telling lies about the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting that killed 20 first graders and six educators. A judge later added $473 million in punitive damages. It took years for justice to be done but that’s how the justice system in a democracy works. Libel is a strong antidote against reckless liars taking shelter under the First Amendment umbrella.

Alex Jones is a small fry compared to global media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose Fox News not only allowed the spread of the Big Lie about the 2020 presidential election, but also accused Dominion Voting Systems of using a faulty algorithm that made it possible for voter fraud to occur and steal the election from Donald Trump. Moreover, Fox News hosts said, without any evidence, that Dominion, the Toronto election technology company, was a cover for the Venezuelan communist government of late Hugo Chavez.

In an interview on 60 Minutes, Dominion Systems’ John Poulos said that Fox News’ deliberate and reckless falsehood had not only damaged the company’s reputation but also “People have been put into danger. Their families have been put into danger. Their lives have been upended and all because of lies. It was a very clear calculation that they knew they were lies. And they were repeating them and endorsing them.”

Dominion’s $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News and its parent company Fox Corp., is rather complicated because it raises the question of the freedom of the press under the First Amendment, and the media’s right to report news, especially about a prominent politician’s allegations of voter fraud. Then-President Donald Trump’s tweets were always a source of news regardless of their veracity.

Neither Fox News nor any other media company could have ignored it when, for example, Trump tweeted that, “We have a company that’s very suspect. Its name is Dominion. With the turn of a dial or the change of a chip, you could press a button for Trump and the vote goes to Biden. What kind of a system is this?”

Good journalism requires reporters to trust but verify, and then report. Fox News should have known.

Dominion’s case argues that Fox News’ hosts knew that the allegations against the company were baseless, nonetheless, they recklessly and knowingly went on repeating them and also allowed their invited guest speakers to do so. Moreover, Dominion has asserted in court, they wouldn’t have done it without the knowledge of Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch and CEO Lachlan Murdoch. Their irresponsible actions not only caused tremendous harm to the company’s reputation, they also jeopardized the safety of their employees.

When the case goes to trial, the crucial question before the jury will be: Did Fox Corp.’s top executives know that the voter fraud allegations against Dominion were false, but still allowed Fox News’ hosts and guests to keep broadcasting the lie? More importantly, what role did major news organizations such as Fox play in the 2020 presidential elections in diminishing voters’ trust in the electoral system and consequently people’s faith in democracy?

Narain Batra, of Hartford, a media and First Amendment scholar, is the author of The First Freedomsand America’s Culture of Innovation, and the most recent, India In A New Key.

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