A former Playboy model who claims to have had an affair with President Trump was not defamed by Tucker Carlson’s scathing commentary on Fox News because viewers understand he is “not stating actual facts,” a judge ruled Thursday.
Karen McDougal entered national headlines after it emerged the National Enquirer bought the story of her alleged affair for $150,000 in the lead up to the 2016 election. Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, then reimbursed the Enquirer to keep the sordid tale under wraps.
In a Dec. 10, 2018 episode of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” the conservative commentator assailed federal prosecutors’ theory that the hush money payment amounted to an illegal campaign contribution.
“Remember the facts of the story. These are undisputed. Two women approached Donald Trump and threatened to ruin his career and humiliate his family if he doesn’t give them money. Now, that sounds like a classic case of extortion,” Carlson said. “Yet, for whatever reason, Trump caves to it, and he directs Michael Cohen to pay the ransom. Now, more than two years later, Trump is a felon for doing this. It doesn’t seem to make any sense.”
McDougal sued, arguing Carlson defamed her by claiming she’d committed the crime of extortion.
But Manhattan Federal Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil ruled that context is key. Viewers, she wrote, tune in specifically for Carlson’s “overheated rhetoric” and “pitched commentary.”
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“As (Fox News) notes, Mr. Carlson himself aims to ‘challenge political correctness and media bias,’” the judge wrote.
“This ‘general tenor’ of the show should then inform a viewer that he is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary,’” the judge added, citing legal precedent.
“Tucker Carlson Tonight” routinely dominates the ratings among cable news shows.
Cohen pleaded guilty to making an illegal campaign contribution in connection with the McDougal payment, among other crimes. He was sentenced to three years in prison.
Fox News in a statement said McDougal’s suit was a threat to free speech.
“[Her] lawsuit attempted to silence spirited opinion commentary on matters of public concern. The court today held that the First Amendment plainly prohibits such efforts to stifle free speech. The decision is a victory not just for FOX News Media, but for all defenders of the First Amendment,” the statement said.