BuzzFeed Hit With $11 Million Defamation Lawsuit by Viral News Agency

Buzzfeed Offices Main - H 2014
Macey J Foronda/Buzzfeed

Buzzfeed Offices Main - H 2014

In a war of words between two viral news agencies, a New York federal court has been invited to determine who is a bullsh*tter and who isn't.

On Monday, journalist Michael Leidig and Central European News filed a defamation lawsuit demanding more than $11 million in damages over an Aug. 24, 2015, BuzzFeed article headlined "The King of Bullsh*t News" and subtitled "How a small British news agency and its founder fill your Facebook feed with stories that are wonderful, wacky — and often wrong."

According to BuzzFeed's story, CEN is responsible for weird news that travels virally, including one story about a Russian fisherman saved from a bear attack by a Justin Bieber ringtone. BuzzFeed flags CEN as "often" reporting stuff that is "inaccurate or downright false," and says that evidence suggests an "alarming proportion...are based on exaggeration, embellishment, and outright fabrication."

Leidig, who identifies himself in the lawsuit as an award-winning British journalist who is currently the vice chairman of the National Association of Press Agencies, says that he was approached by BuzzFeed reporter Alan White in advance of the article about CEN, which also reported about a Macedonian man who chopped his own penis off after his girlfriend told him it wasn’t big enough.

White is said to have emailed Leidig, "As I mentioned previously, I understand that you are producing this viral content for sale in order to fund your laudable investigative journalism, such as your report into the issue of child trafficking in Europe, and I am keen to reflect this fact in the article."

In its own article, BuzzFeed describes the genesis of its spotlight on CEN

"After growing suspicious of the weird, wonderful, and exotic stories CEN has made a name for itself with – including a few picked up by BuzzFeed News – we decided to investigate," it wrote. "In all, we evaluated 41 CEN pieces that struck us as particularly attention-grabbing. Of those, 11 proved to be completely false or to be based on images that did not match the stories; eight more contained suspicious details such as perfect quotes that appeared in no other coverage; 13 we were unable to verify either way; and nine appeared to be real or mostly real."

One of those stories was about Chinese teenagers attempting to alleviate their feelings of loneliness by taking cabbages for walks. BuzzFeed traces stories about the topic appearing in other publications, including Metro and the Huffington Post, to CEN, along with pictures and a quote from a “Chinese psychiatrist Wen Chao.”

The new lawsuit says that contrary to implications of falsity, "Young people in China had walked cabbages out of loneliness; the persons quoted in the CEN story were real and the quotes correct; and the story was widely re-published in China, leading to some public-opinion surveys conducted about the phenomenon, which led to further news stories there."

Leidig's complaint (read here) has other examples of BuzzFeed's alleged editorial failures. For example, regarding to a CEN story about a Chinese man who got a tapeworm from eating too much sashimi, Leidig faults BuzzFeed for doing "nothing to determine whether the photo of the x-ray included by plaintiffs in their story was genuine or not."

As BuzzFeed's article came out, it conducted a parallel examination into BuzzFeed pieces that used CEN content. BuzzFeed found at least 10 stories, including "The Unluckiest Man in the World Set His College on Fire With a Fireworks Marriage Proposal." Each of those articles have been appended with updates. The one about the Justin Bieber ringtone, for example, now states, "This bear was apparently not a Belieber."

Leidig says this has harmed him in myriad ways: CEN clients have stopped using its service, other clients like the Daily Mirror will only use CEN stories when "absolutely necessary," and ad sales have plummeted by about 30 percent. Plus more.

"As a direct result of defendant’s publication, plaintiff CEN lost a potential high-six-figure investment that had been in the works for many months," states the complaint. "The investment was to fund the development of new software allowing journalists to deal directly with customers for their work. As of the beginning of April 2015, the investment bank involved was representing that it had an investor who was keen on the proposed product; after defendant’s publication, the potential investor disappeared."

And then there's what allegedly happened to Leidig's father. According to the complaint, the journalist traveled to England to see him shortly after the BuzzFeed article was published, and the event was dominated by discussion about the article and possible consequences for him, including the possible closure of CEN.

"The day after Mr. Leidig and his father had spent the evening discussing these matters, his father had a massive stroke that left him unable to communicate with others, a condition not expected to change for the rest of his life," adds the complaint. "Thus the last memories Mr. Leidig’s father had of him were of disgrace and possible ruin as 'The King of Bullshit News.' ”

A spokesperson for BuzzFeed responded, "We're aware that the suit was filed, but we don't comment on potential litigation."