Virginia Lt. Governor Files $400 Million Defamation Suit Against CBS

Justin Fairfax
Virginia Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax presides over the state’s senate in Richmond, Virginia, U.S., February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Editor’s Note: This article has been modified to specify that Fairfax sued CBS Corporation and CBS Broadcasting Inc. (as opposed to the general “CBS”). We also made clear that the interviews were aired on CBS This Morning.

Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor, Justin Fairfax, is suing CBS Corporation and CBS Broadcasting Inc. for defamation for airing separate interviews with two women, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, who have accused him of sexual assault. Fairfax’s lawyers filed the suit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.

CBS This Morning aired the two interviews in April of 2019, at a time when national attention was focused on Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal. Had Gov. Northam stepped down, Fairfax would have replaced him as governor. 

See also: MSNBC and Rachel Maddow Face $10 Million Defamation Lawsuit

The lawsuit claims that the sexual encounters between Fairfax and the two women were consensual, and that CBS This Morning had information before and after airing the interviews that would have proven the allegations against him “had not been corroborated by any independent investigation.” 

The U.S. Supreme Court sets a high standard for proving defamation cases. As a public official, Fairfax would have to prove that the statements in question are false and that the falsehood was published intentionally or with reckless disregard for the truth. 

To demonstrate recklessness, the lawsuit argues that a “current CBS legal officer, who was a Duke classmate of Watson’s and Fairfax’s, had information all along that Fairfax did not rape or sexually assault Watson.” 

The suit also contends that CBS This Morning’s decision to air Tyson’s and Watson’s interviews was motivated by a desire to improve their own reputation, which had been damaged by a number of high-profile #MeToo scandals. This goal, Fairfax’s complaint argues, caused the network to abandon traditional reporting standards.  

“Upon information and belief… the network sought to visibly align itself on the side of perceived victims to improve its public image,” the complaint says. “As a result of that bias, CBS abandoned sound, standard journalistic practices that would have revealed fabrications, inconsistencies, and provably false statements made by Watson and Tyson…”. 

In response to the lawsuit, CBS issued the following statement: “We stand by our reporting and we will vigorously defend this lawsuit.” 

Tyson’s attorneys have also responded to Fairfax’s suit, calling it “yet another desperate stunt by Mr. Fairfax to preserve his political career at the expense of survivors of sexual assault,” according to The Washington Post. 

A representative for Watson said in a statement, “We look forward to everyone testifying under oath, now that this matter is in court.” 

The Washington Post Complaint NPR