UPDATED, with comment from plaintiffs: A federal judge in San Diego dismissed One America News Network’s defamation lawsuit against Rachel Maddow, MSNBC and Comcast, concluding that Maddow was stating her opinion when she said that the right-leaning channel “really, literally is paid Russian propaganda.”
“Considering the totality of the circumstances – including the general context of the statements, the specific context of the statements, and the statements’ susceptibility of being proven true or false – a reasonable fact finder could only conclude that the statement was one of opinion not fact,” U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant wrote in a 17-page ruling.
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She also said that the defendants could seek attorneys fees and costs.
The lawsuit, filed last fall in U.S. District Court in San Diego, centered on one of Maddow’s segments from July 22 of last year. Maddow opened her show by referencing a Daily Beast story and telling her audience that it reported that OANN “has a full-time on-air reporter who covers U.S. politics, who is also simultaneously on the payroll of the Kremlin.”
One America took particular issue when Maddow, in her segment, also said “the most obsequiously pro-Trump right wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda.”
Maddow made the statement after the Daily Beast ran a story by Kevin Poulsen reporting that one of One America’s on-air reporters, Kristian Brunovich Rouz, also was on the payroll for Sputnik, the Kremlin news outlet. One America then demanded a retraction.
In their lawsuit, One America said that “Rouz has never been a staff employee of Sputnik News. He worked as a freelancer for Sputnik News and his work there had no relation to his work for OAN. Rouz submitted articles to Sputnik on his own and would receive approximately $40 if the articles were accepted.”
In her ruling, Bashant wrote that even though Maddow used the word “literally,” she “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.”
The lawsuit also claimed that Maddow’s remarks were retaliation against One America because its president, Charles Herring, had called out parent company Comcast, “for their anti-competitive censorship” in refusing to carry the conservative channel.
The lawsuit sought more than $10 million in damages.
Herring Networks, the owner of One America, said that it would appeal.
Its attorney, Amnon Siegel of Miller Barondess in Los Angeles, said in a statement, “The court did not squarely address the fact that Maddow prefaced her false statement with ‘really literally,’ which is used to emphasize the truth of a statement. In fact, the court’s decision recognizes that Maddow’s statement that OAN is paid Russian propaganda is capable of being proven false. And it is, in fact, false. That should have been enough for the court to deny the motion and allow a jury to decide the issue.”
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