The anchors of “Fox & Friends” may not appreciate a federal judge referring to them as “gullible news program hosts,” but at least they’re off the hook for a $75,000 slander lawsuit filed by a Maine school superintendent. Fox News Channel made an on-air retraction after learning that the anchors had been quoting from an Internet parody and the court ruled that the superintendent will have to be satisfied with that.
The dispute began with a real incident. A middle school student in Lewiston, ME was suspended for placing a bag containing ham on the table where Muslim students from Somalia were eating lunch. A follow up story in the Lewiston Sun Journal quoted school superintendent Leon Levesque saying it was being treated as a “hate incident” and that it did not reflect the moral values of the school staff and students.
A news parody site, Associated content, then ran a version with made-up quotes from Levesque, such as “these children have to learn that ham is not a toy” and that “our students should feel welcome in our schools, knowing that they are safe from attacks with ham, bacon, porkchops, or any other delicious meat that comes from pigs.”
News staffers at FNC first came upon the parody, then verified the actual story, at least in general terms, from other sources. Materials provided to “Fox & Friends” hosts Steve Doocy and Brian Kilmeade included the quotes from the parody article and they proceeded to read those quotes and joke about them on the air. They even became the show’s “question of the day: Ham sandwich, hate crime or just lunch?”
When Levesque’s lawyer later contacted FNC to complain about inaccuracies in the report, Fox & Friends issued a retraction and apology, admitting that the quotes had turned out to be fictitious.
Here’s the opening of the ruling by US District Judge D. Brock Hornby: “The facts in this case – a morning cable news show derisively reporting events and statements obtained unwittingly from an online parody – should provide grist for journalism classes teaching research and professionalism in the Internet age. But First Amendment principles developed long before the Internet still provide protection to the gullible news program hosts against this public official’s claims for defamation and false light invasion of privacy. Poetic justice would subject the defendants to the same ridicule that they accorded the plaintiff. But in real life, the aggrieved school superintendent must be satisfied with their later retraction and a professional reputation sullied less than theirs. The defendants’ motion for summary judgment is Granted.”
Our thanks to the Lewiston Sun Journal for posting the entire ruling on their Internet site.
RBR/TVBR observation: The quotes from the Internet site were unquestionably more interesting than the ones in mainstream news sources, such as the Boston Globe. Didn’t it occur to the editors at FNC that the Globe, the AP and such would have latched onto those juicy tidbits if they had been real?