Reprinted with permission from Media Matters
Two former Georgia election workers recently filed a lawsuit against The Gateway Pundit, a fringe right-wing blog, and its founders for spreading conspiracy theories surrounding a video featuring the plaintiffs, claiming it showed voter fraud. The false claims spurred harassment and threats of violence against the workers.
Many of the facts the lawsuit cites to demonstrate that The Gateway Pundit is guilty of defamation also reflect the way Fox News covered the video.
Both outlets used their wide reach to falsely claim the video showed election fraud occurring, both outlets singled out specific workers as purportedly being at the center of a conspiracy, and both outlets continued to promote these claims even after they had been thoroughly debunked.
The video was originally presented by the Trump campaign to the Georgia Senate on December 3, 2020, as part of its fraudulent attempt to prove voter fraud had taken place. The campaign claimed the video showed workers unloading ballots from a concealed suitcase after ordering their Republican counterparts to leave. In actuality, the video was taken out of context and, when played in its entirety, showed normal ballot tabulation procedure.
Even though these claims were immediately debunked by both news sources and election officials, right-wing media latched onto the video and surrounding conspiracy theories as proof of voter fraud. The petition filed against The Gateway Pundit reveals that it was the first outlet to specifically name plaintiffs Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss, resulting in an “onslaught of extremely violent and graphic threats and dangerous harassment” of the mother and daughter.
Although Fox News stopped short of naming Freeman and Moss, the network’s coverage consistently mirrored other elements of The Gateway Pundit’s coverage cited in the lawsuit. Not only did Fox News amplify the conspiracy theories, but it also frequently pointed out images of Moss and Freeman in the video and claimed the workers had engaged in illegal activity.
- On December 3, Tucker Carlson played the footage on his show, saying it “appears to show poll workers pulling ballots out of suitcases after they told poll monitors to go home.” Carlson directed people to “pay attention to the top right-hand box” before playing the footage. The box Carlson directed his audience's attention to depicted two figures -- a woman with blonde braids and a woman in purple -- whom The Gateway Pundit would identify as Moss and Freeman that night and the following morning, respectively, according to the lawsuit.
The network’s coverage was in line with actions the lawsuit says constitute defamation, as, like The Gateway Pundit, Fox “disregarded reliable sources refuting their claims'' and “did not neutrally report the allegations about Ms. Freeman that were advanced by Trump lawyers and promptly disproven by Georgia election officials.
- On the December 4 edition of Fox & Friends, correspondent Griff Jenkins reported that the claims had been refuted by state election officials, but the hosts continued to push the conspiracy theory, with co-host Ainsley Earhardt saying, “How about those suitcases that were pulled out from the table in Georgia?” and co-host Brian Kilmeade responding, “I was that last night. It’s pretty hard to dispute that there’s something going on that needs some explanation.
- America’s Newsroom followed with yet another report from Jenkins, who explained that the claims were investigated and shown to be untrue. Again, the hosts undermined this evidence, playing the clip from the previous night’s Hannity where Moss was singled out on video. Guest and Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn responded to the video, saying he thought “Sean’s right in the sense that it raises real concerns.”
- During that night’s prime-time slate, guest host Trace Gallagher led off The Story with a report on the video, stating that a “senior source in the Georgia secretary of state’s office [told] Fox News that the claims had been ‘investigated and debunked’ and that observers were there the entire time and the case of the ballots in the video is a case that all ballots are supposed to be kept in.” He then brought on Trump legal team consultant Jenny Beth Martin, who repeated a series of false assertions in attempting to deny the video had been debunked and claimed the video showed “a violation of state law.” Later, during a panel discussion on the video, Gallagher said Martin “made a good point” in claiming that the video was “debunked in a heartbeat — very quick to debunk this thing without really taking a good look at all this and talking to all the witnesses involved.”
- On his show that night, Carlson also doubled down on his claims, saying the video “looks like fraud” and that he had spoken with Georgia election official Gabriel Sterling, who informed him that “investigators looked into that video” and found no evidence of fraud. Nevertheless, Carlson continued to question what occurred “when the workers were unsupervised,” claiming that it was “not a conspiracy theory — those are legitimate questions.”
- Hannity likewise returned to the story that night on his show, also claiming statements from election officials were untrue, saying their explanations “directly [contradict] the affidavits under the penalty of perjury and video evidence and reports from election night itself.” Later in the show, Hannity brought on Lara Trump, who baselessly claimed there were enough ballots in the video to, when combined with her additional false claim that 15,000 out-of-state voters cast ballots, show “Donald Trump overwhelmingly [won] the state of Georgia.”
- On December 5, Fox & Friends Weekend brought on guest Brett Tolman, who also attempted to refute statements made by Georgia elections officials debunking the conspiracy theories. Tolman was introduced as a “former federal prosecutor and former U.S. attorney for the state of Utah,” but the show made no mention of Tolman’s participation in helping Trump’s campaign in its attempt to overturn the results of the election.
- During special coverage on Fox News that day, anchor Trace Gallagher played the footage of Freeman, first referring to it as a claim made by Rudy Giuliani and later acknowledging that it had been debunked. However, after reading tweets from Georgia election officials debunking the video, Gallagher claimed there were “some very smart people saying, you know what, something about that video is off.”
- On the December 7, The Five co-host Jesse Watters went further in naming individuals who he falsely claimed were responsible for fraud. Watters first claimed that the workers “counted all these ballots after sending all of these poll watchers and members of the media home and Biden put on a substantial number into his lead.” He then asserted that the “same guy that made up the lie about the burst pipe was the same guy that sent the media home before they pulled out the ballots from under the table. The guy's name is Ralph Jones, partisan Democrat.” Jones, a voter registration chief for the county, had not lied about a burst pipe, which turned out to be a water leak, and would later quit following “pressure and threats over his work during the 2020 election”; he was “targeted with violent threats and he reported strangers knocking on the door of the home where he and his family live.”
- That night on his show, Hannity again played the video while repeating claims that observers were ordered out of the room before “election workers” removed suitcases “apparently filled with thousands and thousands of ballots, which were then counted by the workers that were allowed to remain in the room that pulled them out of the suitcases they conveniently had there, without partisan observers, without the media.” Hannity then claimed “nothing has been debunked by anybody,” before citing an article from The Federalist, which claimed to refute debunkings of the video; the same article was referenced in the lawsuit, which said the fact that Jim Hoft shared it on social media was evidence that he had “full awareness that his statements about Ms. Freeman and Ms. Moss had been flatly and fully refuted by multiple officials and multiple fact-checking organizations.”
- On December 14, Fox & Friends aired an interview with then-President Donald Trump during which he repeated his campaign's claim about the video, saying, “People ... took all of those ballots, all of those Biden ballots, under the table with the black dress, and they took them and they started shoving them into machine.” Neither the reporter interviewing him nor the hosts commenting on the interview provided any pushback or correction to his claims.
- As reported by Mediaite, at the end of December, Fox News started airing ads from the Trump campaign that featured the footage of Freeman and Moss and repeated claims that the video “shows poll workers pulling out trunks containing ballots from overwhelmingly Democrat precincts.” About a week after the ads began airing on Fox News, Freeman and Moss were forced to evacuate from their home when the FBI concluded it would not be safe for them to stay.