A dispute between Fox News and The New York Times appears to be escalating towards a legal confrontation after 'The Grey Lady' refused demands to retract a story and apologise to cable TV host Sean Hannity.

Mr Hannity sent a legal letter to the publication after a column in the paper allegedly associated the death of a New York bartender with his comments that Americans were getting "unnecessarily" scared by "this new hoax".

"The columns are accurate, do not reasonably imply what you and Mr Hannity allege they do, and constitute protected opinion," Times' legal counsel David E. McCraw wrote to Mr Hannity's lawyer Charles Harder.

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"In response to your request for an apology and retraction, our answer is 'no'."

Mr Harder, who is also the lawyer for Donald Trump and represented Hulk Hogan in taking down Gawker.com, had sent a 12-page legal demand about three articles from columnist Ginia Bellafante, contributing writer Kara Swisher and media columnist Ben Smith.

In the 18 April article from Ms Bellafante, the daughter of 74-year-old Joe Joyce was quoted as saying her father decided to go on a cruise despite coronavirus after watching Fox News and believing the danger was under control.

Mr Joyce took a cruise to Spain with his wife on 1 March and became ill on 27 March. He died on 9 April.

"Eventually, Fox changed course and took the virus more seriously, but the Joyces were long gone by then," Ms Bellafante wrote.

Ms Bellafante has herself come under criticism for downplaying the coronavirus threat, tweeting in late February that the virus is not deadly in most cases and she fundamentally didn't understand the panic.

According to Mr Harder, in earlier columns on 22 March and 31 March, Mr Smith and Ms Swisher implied that Mr Hannity downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and that he was responsible for determining all of Fox News' coverage of the coronavirus.

Mr Hannity addressed the issue on Monday's broadcast, saying the newspaper "all but accused me of murder".

"The same people now accusing the president, even yours truly, pretty much of murder, killing people who passed away from the coronavirus, when nothing could be further from the truth," he said.

In the legal letter, Mr Harder said "The New York Times' failure to retract the story and issue an apology would leave Mr Hannity with no alternative but to consider instituting immediate legal proceedings".

"You falsely state and falsely imply a connection between Mr Hannity's on-air comments and Mr Joyce's decision to take a cruise," the letter said.

"But what you fail to mention is that Mr Hannity's comments could not possibly have influenced Mr Joyce's decision because he embarked on his cruise on March 1 (according to your report), while Mr Hannity made comments on 9 March, which you claim influenced his decision."

"Moreover, you were fully aware that this was the actual timeline, and in order to mislead your readers and support your false narrative, you withheld the date of Mr Hannity's comments from your story."

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