Rachel Maddow: "Russian Propaganda" Just Opinion; Defamation Suit Fails

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

Rachel Maddow and MSNBC parent company Comcast are pushing for the end to a defamation lawsuit brought by Herring Networks, the owner of One America News Network (OAN). In court papers filed Monday, the liberal TV host argued that her assessment of OAN as "paid Russian propaganda" qualifies as opinion and thus isn't actionable.

Maddow's comment about OAN came after The Daily Beast published a July 22 article headlined "Trump’s New Favorite Channel Employs Kremlin-Paid Journalist." According to that story, a politics reporter named Kristian Rouz was appearing on OAN while  simultaneously writing for Sputnik, a Kremlin-owned news wire.

On her show that night, Maddow ran with the story, commenting, "We literally learned today that that outlet the president is promoting shares staff with the Kremlin. . . . In this case, the most obsequiously pro-Trump right-wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda. The on-air U.S. politics reporter is paid by the Russian government to produce propaganda for that government."

OAN's owner is now in court over the characterization and conjuring $10 million in demanded compensatory damages.

"Maddow’s statement is utterly and completely false," states the complaint. "OAN is wholly owned and financed by the Herrings, an American family. OAN has never been paid or received a penny from Russia or the Russian government. Defendants made this false claim to smear OAN’s reputation in retaliation for Plaintiff’s insistence that Defendants treat OAN fairly and offer the OAN news channel to Comcast subscribers."

In a motion to strike (read here), the defendants say OAN "utterly ignores the context of Ms. Maddow’s comment, which is nothing more than a vivid, hyperbolic turn of phrase sandwiched between precise factual recitations that indisputably and accurately state the facts from the Daily Beast article."

Represented by Gibson Dunn's Ted Boutrous, the defendants add that the "comment is fully protected opinion because (a) it was based on disclosed facts; and (b) it does not imply any additional objective facts such that it is capable of being proven false."

Interestingly, the new motion aimed at defeating Herring's lawsuit comes as the Supreme Court has been asked to confirm constitutional protection for statements of opinion based on true facts concerning a matter of public concern. The twist is that the petitioner is a conservative group, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, looking to wiggle out of a defamation suit brought over comments made about climate change studies. A petition for review — which also wants judges to decide what's opinion as a matter of law rather than juries deciding as a matter of fact — had earned the support of several former attorneys general, including Jeff Sessions, Ed Meese and Michael Mukasey. 

As for the lawsuit over Maddow's "Russian propaganda" comment, that's getting to a judge for early analysis under California's SLAPP statute. If "Russian propaganda" is not opinion, the defendants swing in the other direction, saying the statement would still be barred from defamation liability because it's "substantially true."