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Back in 2019, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow told her viewers that a far-right cable channel was “literally paid Russian propaganda.” In stating this, Maddow specifically referenced an individual employee’s work history at a Russian news company before they joined One America News Network (OANN) — a channel once revered and favored by Trump. But OANN claims they never received any funds from Russia and filed a defamation lawsuit against Maddow. In May last year, a federal judge dismissed the case but OANN went on to file an appeal.
Last month, that appeal was also dismissed on the grounds that it was an obvious exaggeration and therefore not defamatory. This is worth unpacking. Legally, defamation must:
- Be a falsehood of statement (an opinion can neither be proven true nor false)
- Have malicious intent (or at least negligence)
- Be published to a third party (so telling your brother he’s crazy is not defamatory)
- And be proven to harm the plaintiff’s reputation (by exposing them to public hatred, or damaging their business image)
So if Maddow made a false statement that hurt OANN’s reputation, why was the case dismissed? The court argues that her statement was within the bounds of protected free speech and that audiences would recognize the obvious exaggeration. The ruling specifically stated that her statement — given the context of the show — “could not reasonably be understood to imply an assertion of objective fact.” In other words, as viewers, we would never assume that a cable news show host is entirely factual. Put differently, the responsibility of detecting false statements is the responsibility of the listener.
This brings us to the often misinterpreted media space that cable news occupies, and if a cable news show could ever possibly be guilty of defamation. While audiences view cable news shows as a source of concrete news, courts treat these shows as opinionated entertainment. One law professor says this disparity dooms the U.S. from ever solving the problem of misinformation. Others in defamation law are more cautious about using courts as arbiters of truth. While the debate continues, Americans, as noted earlier, are voicing more interest overall in online misinformation regulation.
In the case of OANN, they’re on the hook for $250K in legal fees and $10K to Maddow and her team. Ironically enough,OANN is also fighting against a defamation lawsuit for making repeat, on-air claims that the 2020 election was rigged.
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As you review your reporting sources, consider digging deeper into the bias in cable news. Stanford has a detailed report evaluating CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and more.