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Updated at 5:19 p.m. ET
A new lawsuit filed Monday by a suspended Fox News host accuses the network and senior executives of arranging to have her private communications spied on as part of a campaign of intimidation.
The host, Andrea Tantaros, alleged in a previous lawsuit that she had been sexually harassed by former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes and former top-rated Fox News host Bill O'Reilly. That suit has been stayed while her complaints against the network are being heard in binding private arbitration. All defendants, through their own representatives or through Fox's parent company, 21st Century Fox, vehemently denied Tantaros' initial allegations.
Ailes and O'Reilly were both forced out of Fox News with major payouts.
In Monday's federal lawsuit, Tantaros alleges that Fox News executives including co-President Bill Shine orchestrated the use of material gathered by electronic eavesdropping that was fed to Twitter accounts acting on the network's behalf. Ensuing tweets, she says, reflected knowledge of details of intimate conversations and exchanges with family members and friends. Tantaros alleges this was done to try to undermine her resolve in challenging the network on sexual harassment.
"Fox News and its executives flatly deny that they conducted any electronic surveillance of Ms. Tantaros," according to a statement from the law firm Dechert LLP. "They have no knowledge of the anonymous or pseudonymous tweets described in her complaint. This lawsuit is a flimsy pretext to keep Ms. Tantaros and her sexual harassment claims in the public eye after the State Supreme Court directed her to bring them in arbitration."
The case appears to build on a recent report by Salon's Matthew Sheffield. He reported that Fox News under Ailes allegedly paid for "sock puppet" accounts online to promote his private agendas and also covertly supported the development of blogs that sexualized the network's female hosts and anchors. Tantaros' new suit names, among others, the head of a digital media consulting company who had a prominent role in Sheffield's account.
The lawsuit also alleges that Shine used social media consultant Pete Snyder of Disruptor Capital to plant negative reaction about Chris Ruddy, the CEO and chairman of Newsmax, a rival but far smaller conservative media outfit.
The suit alleges a rise in offensive material on social media accounts directed toward Tantaros in early 2015, when, she says, she first notified Shine and other Fox News executives that Ailes had harassed her.
Then in May 2016, according to the complaint, several Twitter accounts started to post material suggesting direct knowledge of her conversations.
For example, a picture of a movie about a black scorpion was posted just after she learned that a friend had been bitten by one. Another tweet invoked the idea of a memorial for Tantaros' dead brother, just after she and her mother had spoken of it; the third anniversary of his death was still a few months away.
And at the same time that Tantaros was talking to the children of her other brother while they were at Disneyland, according to the lawsuit, a tweet on one of the accounts posted a photograph of Mickey Mouse hugging two children.
"This is not just cyberstalking," Tantaros' lawyer, Judd Burstein, told NPR. "This is cyberstalking on steroids, because, as alleged in the complaint, they harassed her through sock-puppet social media accounts which conveyed the illegal fruits of their electronic surveillance of her. It was in essence two crimes committed at the same time."
Fox News and parent company 21st Century Fox have condemned Burstein's filings in the past and have attacked Tantaros as untrustworthy. They allege she ruptured her standing at the network when she published a book with HarperCollins, a corporate cousin, that had a racy cover and that her allegations of harassment by Ailes, O'Reilly and others is a ruse and a cynical effort to cash in.
The phrase "hacking" carries particular resonance for the Murdoch family, which controls Fox News. In 2011, a bribery and hacking scandal at their London tabloids led to the closing of a newspaper, the criminal conviction of a former editor-in-chief, millions of dollars in settlements and the loss of a potential $11 billion takeover of a big British broadcaster called Sky. The Murdochs are now back in front of a British regulator, once again attempting to take over the 60 percent of Sky they do not already control.
"Ms. Tantaros and I hope that this lawsuit will demonstrate that the Murdochs mean what they say about reforming Fox News," Burstein says. "If one were cynical, the firing of O'Reilly and Ailes, particularly given the sexual predator bonuses they received, were efforts to cauterize deep wounds. But now that they are presented with misconduct and illegality that goes far beyond anything that has been reported to date, the question that everyone should be asking is, what are they going to do about it?"
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