Rachel Maddow, MSNBC Beat Libel Suit Over "Russian Propaganda"

The Rachel Maddow Show Still - Publicity - H 2018
Courtesy of MSNBC

Popular cable news networks are having a helluva day in court against libel suits. On Friday, hours after CNN scored a victory in Virginia, MSNBC took home its own triumph in California.

The suit came from Herring Networks, the owner of One America News Network (OAN), the subject of a Daily Beast story headlined "Trump’s New Favorite Channel Employs Kremlin-Paid Journalist.” The article reported that OAN's Kristian Rouz was writing for Sputnik, a Kremlin-owned news wire.

On her show that night, Rachel Maddow commented, "We literally learned today that that outlet the President is promoting shares staff with the Kremlin. I mean, what?... '[I]n this case, the most obsequiously pro-Trump right wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda. Their on-air U.S. politics reporter is paid by the Russian government to produce propaganda for that government."

The characterization of "Russian propaganda" landed Maddow, MSNBC and Comcast in court to face a $10 million libel action, but on Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Cynthia Bashant exercises California's SLAPP law and rejects Herring's suit as a frivolous one impinging First Amendment activity.

Bashant sees the threshold question as whether the objectionable statement is opinion or fact.

Here, the judge first notes the broad context.

"Maddow’s show is different than a typical news segment where anchors inform viewers about the daily news," states the opinion. "The point of Maddow’s show is for her to provide the news but also to offer her opinions as to that news. Therefore, the Court finds that the medium of the alleged defamatory statement makes it more likely that a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implies an assertion of objective fact."

Next, the judge looks at the specific context from Maddow's use of the word "literally" — "use of the word can be hyperbolic," according to opinion — to the news host's presentation of the Daily Beast article and failure to mention that Rouz lacked decision-making authority at OAN and was merely a freelancer for Sputnik. Bashant says it doesn't matter. Not all facts must be presented.

More from the opinion:

"Here, Maddow had inserted her own colorful commentary into and throughout the segment, laughing, expressing her dismay (i.e., saying 'I mean, what?') and calling the segment a 'sparkly story' and one we must 'take in stride.' For her to exaggerate the facts and call OAN Russian propaganda was consistent with her tone up to that point, and the Court finds a reasonable viewer would not take the statement as factual given this context. The context of Maddow’s statement shows reasonable viewers would consider the contested statement to be her opinion. A reasonable viewer would not actually think OAN is paid Russian propaganda, instead, he or she would follow the facts of the Daily Beast article; that OAN and Sputnik share a reporter and both pay this reporter to write articles. Anything beyond this is Maddow’s opinion or her exaggeration of the facts."

The SLAPP victory for MSNBC and Maddow will also mean that OAN has to pay defendants' attorneys fees. Here, the defendants were represented by Gibson Dunn attorneys  Ted Boutrous Jr., Scott Edelman, Nathaniel Bach, and Theane Evangelis.

Read the full opinion below.