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Businessman Mike Lindell appeared on the cable network Newsmax last month and launched into a baseless conspiracy theory blaming a voting machine company for fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
After muting Lindell’s microphone, a Newsmax anchor told viewers that the My Pillow Inc founder’s claims were unsubstantiated and unverified. The anchor then read a prepared statement that included: “Newsmax accepts the (election) results as legal and final.”
Lindell, an ardent ally of losing presidential candidate Donald Trump, refused to drop the subject, and the anchor stormed off mid-interview.
The on-air reality check highlights a new trend in conservative media: In an apparent effort to minimize liability for defamation, Newsmax and some other outlets are relying on prepared disclaimers or additional pre-recorded programming to repudiate pro-Trump conspiracy theories spouted by guests and hosts.
Legal experts say this practice, also used in some form by One America News Network (OANN) and other conservative TV and radio networks, is a response to lawsuits recently filed or threatened by Dominion Voting Systems Inc and Smartmatic Inc, two election technology companies targeted by pro-Trump conspiracy theorists.
A Newsmax spokesman declined to comment. OANN did not respond to a request for comment.
The suits could test the effectiveness of disclaimers on news coverage more broadly, as well as the conservative media’s appetite for guests and hosts who make unsubstantiated claims about hot-button issues, legal experts say. The suits also pose an “existential threat” to the smaller networks, which can ill afford a big verdict or settlement, said Columbia University historian Nicole Hemmer, author of a book on conservative media.
Dominion pushed forward with its legal challenges on Friday, saying it filed a $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News parent company Fox Corp in Delaware Superior Court, accusing it of falsely claiming the voting company rigged the election to boost its ratings.
Earlier, on Feb. 4, Smartmatic sued Fox, former Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and others, claiming Smartmatic was falsely accused of rigging the election in favor of President Joe Biden. That suit seeks more than $2.7 billion in damages from the network and its hosts or guests.
Floyd Abrams, a prominent media lawyer and First Amendment advocate, said disclaimers could be modestly useful in bolstering the argument that the networks were “simply carrying the views” of Trump surrogates, rather than acting with malice toward Dominion and Smartmatic.
Fox did not run disclaimers, taking a different approach. In the case of Smartmatic coverage, the network aired a three-minute taped interview of an expert who expressed skepticism about electoral fraud claims. The segment ran three times in December. It first aired days after Smartmatic demanded that Fox retract false statements made on its shows, and weeks after those statements were originally broadcast.