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How Right-Wing Radio Stoked Anger Before the Capitol Siege


The First Amendment gives broad latitude to what hosts can say on the air. Recently, though, defamation lawsuits, or the threat of them, have emerged as a potential check. Smartmatic, an election technology firm, filed a $2.7 billion lawsuit last week against the Fox Corporation and three Fox anchors, accusing them of broadcasting false statements that damaged the company.

Sidney Powell, the Trump lawyer named in the Smartmatic suit that accused Fox News of spreading false claims, voiced similar falsehoods on Mr. Limbaugh’s show after Election Day. (Mr. Limbaugh would later complain that Ms. Powell had not produced evidence of fraud, but she reappeared on his program on Dec. 29, with little pushback from a guest host.)

Unlike cable TV, talk radio is difficult to monitor — broadcasts often vanish into the ether and transcripts are scarce. A system maintained by researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which monitors radio broadcasts, transcribed what was said on leading conservative programs between Nov. 22 and Jan. 5.

A New York Times analysis of those transcripts found that, on “The Sean Hannity Show,” which is carried by more than 600 stations, the election was referred to as fraudulent, rigged, stolen or illegal in 35 out of the 45 episodes transcribed by M.I.T. in that period, including comments from guests and callers. The election was referred to as fraudulent, rigged, stolen or illegal in 32 of 45 episodes of Mr. Limbaugh’s program transcribed in that same time span.

After the Capitol riot, the same hosts denounced the violence. “Every good, decent honorable American would condemn all violence,” Mr. Hannity said on Jan. 6.

In the same broadcast, the host reminded his listeners that “hundreds and hundreds” of people had claimed to have witnessed fraud or irregularities in the election. “People feel like their voices aren’t being heard, and they’re angry,” Mr. Hannity said.

He then welcomed a frequent caller to the show, the pro-Trump activist Rose Tennent, who offered no criticism of the violence in Washington.

“At some point, people break,” Ms. Tennent said.

Sophia June contributed reporting.

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