Ray Epps, a Trump supporter whose lawyers filed a defamation lawsuit against Fox News on Wednesday alleging that his life had been turned upside down by the network’s false claims about his role in the January 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, is part of a disturbing pattern for the right-wing propaganda channel.
Fox’s desperate need to cater to its MAGA viewers leads inexorably to its propagandists pushing vile conspiracy theories that end up harming the regular people and companies targeted by its attacks. And when those ill-conceived salvos turn out to be duds, they get the network in legal trouble.
Epps’ lawsuit tells a powerful story about the network’s malfeasance.
“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,” it states. “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.”
The lawsuit details numerous instances in which Fox furthered these claims. Many — but hardly all — of them come from former network star Tucker Carlson, who was particularly obsessed with the Epps saga as he sought to generate a sinister, fraudulent alternate narrative in which the true victims of January 6 were its participants and its true villains the federal “agents provocateurs” he claimed generated the attack as a pretext to purge righteous conservative patriots.
Epps’ lawyers detail the “astronomical” toll he faced as an average person suddenly becoming one of the network’s main characters.
They write that Epps and his wife “received threatening voicemails, emails, and text messages,” including death threats, and they “found bullet casings in their yard.” As a result, they were forced to sell their home and give up the location of their wedding-site and dog-grooming businesses and are currently living in hiding in an RV.
“The emotional and psychological effects of the threats and attacks cannot be overstated,” the lawsuit states. ”Indeed, they may very well dwarf the economic consequences.”
Epps isn’t alone – he is merely the latest victim of Fox’s business model, which relies on keeping its right-wing viewers happy by providing a zealous defense of former President Donald Trump, no matter the cost. Typically, the network’s lies and deceptions go after high-profile people and entities: Democratic politicians, prominent figures in media or business, Fortune 500 companies, and the like.
But when people like Epps and low-profile businesses find themselves targeted in this manner, the impact can be staggering. They are hounded by the network’s fervent fans, leading to economic losses and psychological damage. And their recourse is to sue Fox, garnering some high-profile settlements. Here are a few recent cases.
The family of murdered DNC worker Seth Rich
In May 2017, then-President Trump triggered a media firestorm and a special counsel investigation by firing FBI Director James Comey over his handling of the federal probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Fox, led by Sean Hannity and aided by a right-wing political operative, responded by reviving the internet conspiracy theory that former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich, rather than Russian hackers, had been the source of the Democratic National Committee emails WikiLeaks published during the election, and that his murder may have been in retaliation.
As Hannity put it, as an onscreen graphic read “Murder Mystery,” the Seth Rich story “could completely shatter the narrative that in fact WikiLeaks was working with the Russians, or there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”
Fox’s dishonest, politically motivated coverage reopened the wounds that members of Rich’s family had suffered when he was murdered and his tragic death was seized upon by would-be online sleuths. His brother and parents publicly pleaded for the lies to stop, with the latter writing they were “living in a nightmare that you can never wake up from.” They ultimately sued Fox for emotional distress, with the network eventually settling for a reported seven-figure sum.
Dominion Voting Systems
Fox served as a megaphone for Trumpian lies that the 2020 election was rigged against him in the weeks following his defeat. The network’s hosts and executives knew such claims were false but promoted them anyway in the hopes of keeping their viewers happy. As part of that effort, Fox targeted the little-known election technology company Dominion Voting Systems on numerous occasions, pushing a variety of conspiracy theories -- including claiming that Dominion is a Venezuelan company created at the behest of Hugo Chavez that changed the votes to prevent Trump’s victory.
In one instance, Fox’s Jeanine Pirro hosted Sidney Powell (a Trump lawyer numerous Fox hosts privately agreed was not credible), who on the basis of such lies alleged that Dominion is “one huge, huge criminal conspiracy that should be investigated by military intelligence for its national security implications.” Pirro replied, “Yes, and hopefully, the Department of Justice but who knows anymore.”
Dominion subsequently filed a defamation suit against Fox, arguing that the network’s coverage had led to the stalking and harassment of its employees and “enormous and irreparable economic harm” to its business. Fox settled immediately before the start of the trial for a record $787.5 million.
Smartmatic, another voting technology company, faced a similar assault from Fox in the wake of the 2020 election. While the company’s products were used in only a single county in the 2020 election, the network’s personalities alleged that they were widely used and a source of substantial fraud used to “steal” it from Trump.
Fox’s Maria Bartiromo claimed at one point that according to a single source, “the key point to understand is that the Smartmatic system has a back door that allows it to be, or that allows the votes to be mirrored and monitored, allowing an intervening party a real-time understanding of how many votes will be needed to gain an electoral advantage.”
Smartmatic has sued Fox for $2.7 billion, claiming that its “disinformation campaign had a direct and harmful impact on Smartmatic’s ability to conduct business in the United States and around the world now and in the future.” Fox has begun providing documents to the company and the trial is expected to begin in a New York state courtroom in 2025.
Georgia election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss
Fox’s 2020 election fraud lies were not limited to voter technology companies: In December 2020, the network turned the full power of its propaganda apparatus against two Georgia election workers, Ruby Freeman and her daughter Wandrea “Shaye” Moss.
The Trump campaign put out a video compiling security footage of Freeman and Moss engaged in normal ballot tabulation procedures and falsely alleged the footage showed the pair counting fraudulent ballots that had been concealed in suitcases in order to change the result. Fox hosts quickly adopted the Trump team’s false interpretation and trumpeted it to their millions of viewers.
“In the middle of the night, they kick the observers out, then they went back and kept looking at ballots. They’re finding them under the tables. I mean, this is like a banana republic,” prime-time host Laura Ingraham alleged.
Moss, in June 2022 testimony before the January 6 House select committee, explained that she and Freeman had been suffering through a wave of harassment ever since they became the targets of right-wing conspiracy theorists.
“This turned my life upside down. I no longer give out my business card. ... I don't want anyone knowing my name," Moss said. "I don't go to the grocery store at all. I haven't been anywhere at all. I've gained about 60 pounds. I just don't do nothing anymore. I don't want to go anywhere. I second guess everything that I do. It's affected my life in a major way, in every way, all because of lies, for me doing my job -- same thing I've been doing forever.”
The utter lack of quality control at Fox, and its devotion to coddling its right-wing viewers, makes incidents like these inevitable. And the network seems largely uninterested in avoiding them: Fox ignores or buries debunks of its lies, has retained and even promoted key figures in these smears, and is treating its defamation problem as a matter of poor lawyering.
Fox’s current weakened position will exacerbate the network's defamation problem. The network is vulnerable now, as it was in the aftermath of the 2020 election, facing depressed ratings and a horde of right-wing rivals hoping to sap its audience by attacking it. That will once again increase pressure on its commentators to adopt ever-more-extreme and irresponsible rhetoric in order to rebuild its viewership. And that means that Epps’ day in court with Fox may be on the way — but he won’t be the last.