Judge Dismisses OAN’s $10 Million Libel Suit Against MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow

Rachel Maddow at BookExpo 2019. Terry Ballard/Wikimedia Commons.

On May 22nd, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California dismissed a $10 million libel suit brought by Herring Networks Inc., the parent company of One America News Network (OAN), against MSNBC talk show host Rachel Maddow.

In a July 2019 segment, Maddow discussed a report published in The Daily Beast that highlighted the fact that Kristian Rouz, a reporter at OAN, also wrote for Sputnik News, a Russian government-owned news outlet.

“In this case, the most obsequiously pro-Trump right-wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda,” Maddow said on the show. “Their on-air U.S. politics reporter is paid by the Russian government to produce propaganda for that government.”

In September 2019, Herring sued Maddow, MSNBC, NBCUniversal Media, and Comcast for defamation, arguing that Maddow’s statement–that OAN was “really literally” paid Russian propaganda–was “utterly and completely false” and “intended to malign and harm OAN.”

In October, Maddow, represented by Ted Boutrous of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, asked U.S. District Court Judge Cynthia Bashant to strike down the lawsuit under a California anti-SLAPP law, on the basis that Maddow’s statement was an expression of opinion, not a statement of fact.

In her May 22nd opinion, Bashant applied a three-part test to determine how a reasonable person would likely interpret Maddow’s statement. The test involved examining the statement’s broader context, specific context, and susceptibility to being proven false. In each instance, Bashant found more reason to believe that a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implied an assertion of objective fact.

For example, in analyzing the tone and language of Maddow’s statement, Bashant found that the talk show host’s statement would likely be registered as hyperbolic.

“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,” Bashant wrote. Adding, “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.”

Even the use of the word “literally,” which the plaintiffs argued was proof that Maddow intended the statement to be understood as factual, Bashant saw as evidence to the contrary.

“What is noteworthy about the word ‘literally’ is its conflicting definition,” Bashant wrote, further explaining that the word could both be used to emphasize the literal meaning of a statement or used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement that is not true or possible.

According to Courthouse News, Herring Networks plans to appeal the dismissal.

MAY 22ND OPINIONCourthouse News The Hill