Seen any of the news stories how the Pussycat Dolls was really just a prostitution ring with members of the girl group forced into sex with entertainment executives?
According to a new defamation lawsuit filed against the parent company of the Daily Mail, the wild tale was false. Now, The Pussycat Dolls Inc. and the band’s manager Robin Antin are out to restore their reputations and punish one tabloid for what’s being characterized as an “intentional, reckless and malicious publication.”
The Pussycat Dolls were founded in 1995 by Antin as a modern dance troupe performing weekly shows at The Viper Room in Los Angeles. Christina Aguilera, Christina Applegate and Carmen Electra were among the revolving cast of dancers and singers. Eventually, the group evolved into a recording act whose debut album PCD in 2005 included several songs that landed on the charts. The six primary members of the recording group were Nicole Scherzinger, Carmit Bachar, Ashley Roberts, Jessica Sutta, Melody Thornton and Kimberly Wyatt.
In October, another woman named Kaya Jones came forward to tweet about her own supposed experience with the group.
“My truth,” wrote Jones. “I wasn’t in a girl group. I was in a prostitution ring. Oh & we happened to sing & be famous. While everyone who owned us made the $.”
That was just part of a tweet storm from Jones that included allegations that as a member of the group, she was drugged, blacklisted and walked away from a $134 million record deal.
Perhaps due to the fervor surrounding Harvey Weinstein last fall, or maybe because it was just a story too incredible to ignore, reporters began picking it up. Among the outlets to do so were Fox News, CBS News, the New York Daily News and the New York Post.
Now, the band’s corporate entitity and Antin are in court to fight one of those publications who allegedly should have known better.
According to the complaint, “This defamation action arises out of the intentional, reckless and malicious publication by the Daily Mail Corporation… of false and defamatory statements made by a disgruntled, unreliable and biased person looking for her fifteen minutes of fame, Kaya Jones, when the Defendants knew through their direct prior dealings with Plaintiffs, or should have known, with even the most basic check, that Ms. Jones was unreliable and her story obviously false. Instead, for pure sensationalism, and advertising money, and to grab salacious headlines to sell their product, and without caring what it meant for Plaintiffs, their business, or their reputation, the Defendants published and commented on these defamatory statements with a reckless disregard for the truth.”
This lawsuit figures to cast a shadow on a practice becoming increasingly common: taking statements on social media at face value and fair game for reporting without enough skepticism.
Although many stories characterize Jones as a former member of the group, the group itself considers that to be a stretch.
The complaint continues, “The extent of Ms. Jones’ credits in The Pussycat Dolls is when she auditioned, and served as a backup vocalist on the song ‘Sway’ released in 2004 and the song ‘We Went as Far as We Felt Like Going’ also released in 2004. Had the Daily Mail performed any investigation into this matter, such as reviewing album credits available on the Internet, they would have also seen this information.”
The plaintiffs object to Jones self-portrayal as a core member or “leader” of the Pussycat Dolls. The complaint characterizes her as an “unreliable source,” whose bias should have been evident “due to her failure to be chosen to be a member of the group and reunion.”
Given that the band is in the public eye, attorney Richard Busch, representing the plaintiffs, appears to be focused on meeting the actual malice standard for a defamation case of this nature. That means knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. Alleging that a media outlet should have done a more thorough investigation, however, might not be quite sufficient to support a public figure’s defamation claim. (That could explain why other news outlets with stories about Jones’ tweets have escaped becoming co-defendants. Or maybe it’s because the Daily Mail has settled in the past. See Melania Trump.) What Busch highlights in the complaint (read here) is the Daily Mail‘s past interaction — it “interviewed and ran stories on Ms. Antin and the members of The Pussycat Dolls” — and a “close relationship” with Antin that plaintiffs argue would have made verification easy.
Of course, besides actual malice, the lawsuit could face other challenges. The defamatory statements in question carry someone else’s claims and accusations, and the Daily Mail attributes them as such, with the real point of disagreement perhaps being who qualifies as a “former member” of the group. Nevertheless, sticking something in quotes doesn’t immunize a publication from liability.
The tougher legal questions could be whether some of the allegedly defamatory statements qualify as non-actionable opinions (e.g. “We were all abused”) and whether some of the statements are “of and concerning” Antin and the band’s corporate shell. The Daily Mail did pick up one tweet that specifically mentioned Antin — “Robin & the record label made all the money. We as Pussycat Dolls were paid $500 a week. While we were being abused and used. Fact!” — while also pointing how Jones blamed Antin as “the den mother from hell.”
Overall, the main theory seems to be that the statements in the articles were defamatory per se because there was an assertion that Antin and The Pussycat Dolls, Inc., had “condoned the sexual assault of its members” “and “hooked its members on illegal drugs and abused them in untold ways” and were thus “involved in a serious criminal offense as well as immoral conduct.”
The plaintiffs are seeking an unspecified amount of compensatory and punitive damages. Antin says her reputation as a business person has suffered as a result of the stories.
“The publication of Ms. Jones’ defamatory claims has also had an immeasurably negative impact on the business reputation of The Pussycat Dolls,” states the complaint with further regard to the alleged harm. “Shortly before Ms. Jones’ defamatory statements, The Pussycat Dolls had announced plans to reunite. One of the central themes of the all women group is female empowerment. The Daily Mail’s articles directly impacted the groups reputation in this regard and in turn has caused incalculable damage to any effort to reunite by the group.”