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Fox News hit with another defamation lawsuit — this one over Jan. 6 allegations

A man who was at the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has sued Fox News for defamation. Here, a woman walks by the Fox News headquarters in New York in April.
Nickolai Hammar | NPR
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NPR
A man who was at the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol has sued Fox News for defamation. Here, a woman walks by the Fox News headquarters in New York in April.

Updated July 12, 2023 at 6:41 PM ET

Fox News has been hit with yet another defamation lawsuit, this time by Ray Epps, a former U.S. Marine turned Arizona wedding venue operator who was in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021.

The suit centers on the statements of Fox's former primetime star, Tucker Carlson, who repeatedly placed Epps, a supporter of then-President Donald Trump who says he sought to stave off any bloodshed, at the center of the violent siege on the U.S. Capitol.

Carlson's guests and his own remarks conveyed with seeming certitude that Epps helped instigate the violence unleashed that day and also that he must have been collaborating with a federal agency to do so. Yet Carlson never presented viewers with any concrete evidence of the claims.

"In the aftermath of the events of January 6th, Fox News searched for a scapegoat to blame other than Donald Trump or the Republican Party," the lawsuit begins. "Eventually, they turned on one of their own, telling a fantastical story in which Ray Epps — who was a Trump supporter that participated in the protests on January 6th – was an undercover FBI agent and was responsible for the mob that violently broke into the Capitol and interfered with the peaceful transition of power for the first time in this country's history."

Other Fox stars also picked up the call, including Laura Ingraham and Will Cain.

Fox and Carlson did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. Carlson was not formally named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Fox News star Tucker Carlson suggested Ray Epps was at the center of fanning the violence on Jan. 6, 2012. This screenshot is included in Ray Epps' lawsuit against Fox News.
/ James Ray Epps, Sr. v. Fox News Network
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James Ray Epps, Sr. v. Fox News Network
Fox News star Tucker Carlson suggested Ray Epps was at the center of fanning the violence on Jan. 6, 2012. This screenshot is included in Ray Epps' lawsuit against Fox News.

Attorney says Epps fled home out of fears for his family's safety

According to Epps' attorney, Michael Teter, Epps and his wife were Fox viewers and Carlson fans whose lives were turned upside down by the network.

"Fox News and in particular Tucker Carlson spent a good part of two years lying about Mr. Epps's involvement in January 6th, creating a fictitious story and narrative about him that is wholly untrue," Teter tells NPR. "And because of that he has faced harassment and threats from Fox viewers and others that have ruined his life."

Epps has said he and his wife had to sell their home — and give up their wedding business — and move to a mobile home in Utah.

"He believed in Donald Trump and he believed the lies that Fox told," Teter says. "The fact that then Fox would take one of their viewers and turn him into the villain of one of their conspiracy theories demonstrates what we've known for a while, which is Fox News does not care [about its viewers]."

"It cares about making money," Teter says. "And it will lie to them. It will discredit them. And ultimately it will ruin their lives if they see a profit for them to be made."

A growing list of lawsuits against Fox News over election-related falsehoods

Epps' suit is just the latest legal front against Fox, the result of its lurching embrace of Trump's false claims that he had been cheated of victory in the 2020 race.

Fox was the first television network to project that Democratic nominee Joe Biden would win Arizona. The call outraged many of its core viewers, who defected to other right-wing outlets.

As contemporaneous reporting and documents and testimony in a later court case would demonstrate, executives and stars amplified the increasingly outlandish claims in order to win back those viewers.

That decision proved costly and fateful to its credibility, as Fox hosts and executives agreed to air claims they knew to be false, and to its bottom line.

Fox News paid $787.5 million earlier this year to settle a defamation claim brought by a voting-technology company called Dominion Voting Systems, which was frequently placed at the center of those groundless conspiracy theories.

Plaintiffs who sue media organizations for defamation face long odds. They must prove not only that the claims made about them were false and harmful, but that the people spreading those claims knew they were false, or should've known and recklessly disregarded the truth.

Yet Fox's settlement with Dominion, just moments before opening statements in the trial were to begin, gives others reason to hope.

"The Dominion settlement has emboldened other targets of Fox's coverage to sue, and that's not good news for Fox," says Tom Wienner, a retired corporate litigator who followed the Dominion case at NPR's request.

Epps' suit is being heard in the same venue, Delaware Superior Court.

Fallout from a $787.5 million legal settlement

Days after the Dominion settlement, Fox stripped Carlson of his primetime show, seeking to sideline him until his current contract ends, which is after the upcoming elections. According to Chadwick Moore, who has written a biography of Carlson, his show was to focus once more on Epps the evening that he was ousted.

Carlson was one of the primary defendants in the Dominion suit, which showed him to be privately attacking the network's reporters for publicly contradicting Trump even though, as he acknowledged, they were correct.

"The Dominion suit... demonstrates a pattern on Fox that they have engaged in lies about the 2020 election, seeking to placate their viewers," Teter says. "They wanted the frustration — the anger — that their viewers expected, to continue to have them watching Fox News."

Late last month, Fox paid $12 million to settle a lawsuit from a former senior producer for Carlson who alleged his show's work environment was replete with bigotry and misogyny in her own civil suit. She had separately alleged that attorneys for the network and its parent company, Fox Corp., had pressured her to lie to defend Carlson and male executives in sworn testimony. Fox vigorously contested the allegation of misconduct by its legal team but backed down from its initial defenses of the work environment on Carlson's show.

Meanwhile, Fox faces another lawsuit for $2.7 billion from a second voting tech company, Smartmatic. And investors have brought a pair of lawsuits, arguing that top officials and board members at Fox Corp. failed to exercise appropriate control over the network.

Fox seeks to have Epps case moved to another venue

Fox News and Fox Corp endured tough sledding in the Delaware Superior Court during the Dominion case. After months of being asked by Dominion, for example, Fox's attorneys belatedly acknowledged that Fox Corp. founder and chairman Rupert Murdoch also held the title of executive chairman of Fox News.

Delaware Superior Court Judge Eric M. Davis, who oversaw the Dominion case, chastised Fox's attorneys on that score and several others. And Davis has been assigned related cases. It is perhaps unsurprising that Fox's attorneys have filed a legal notice seeking to have the Epps case moved to federal court in Delaware.

Other Fox hosts stoked the emotional fires that fueled the January 2021 protests to a greater degree than Carlson. Yet after the siege, Carlson quickly embraced a series of contradictory conspiracy theories. He argued that the brutal attack was essentially a rally that got a bit rowdy. And he also claimed that the federal government and antigovernmental protesters from Antifa instigated it.

Epps became a touchstone in reconciling those so far baseless theories. Carlson's claims, presented on his show and in a three-part series called Patriot Purge on the Fox Nation streaming service, led to the resignations of two Fox commentators, Jonah Goldberg and Stephen Hayes. Anchor Bret Baier and then-Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace objected to top network officials. Wallace signed with CNN shortly after.

As recently as this March, however, Carlson once more invoked the specter of federal involvement in the attack on the Capitol.

"A lot of this was clearly influenced by federal agents or informants. It was. Ok?" Carlson told viewers. "But I did not want to suggest someone was a federal agent or informant unless I knew for a fact because you really could get someone in trouble."

"It's very clear, something very strange is going on with Ray Epps," he said. "I mean, don't lie to my face. The Ray Epps thing isn't, isn't organic, sorry."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.