George Boardman: Nunes joins the parade of conservatives trying to bully the news media
Observations from the center stripe: Spring edition
SPRING MUST be here — I saw a yard sale the other day. The Coppertone display can’t be far behind ... WHY DO country singers always wear their cowboy hats, even indoors? Is that a union rule? … CAN’T WIN: Now that many people, some of them rich, have contributed almost $1 billion to restore Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, critics are lamenting the lack of aid to the poor … THAT OUTPOURING of support prompted some Americans to contribute $1 million to rebuild three burned-out black churches in Louisiana … IMAGINE THAT: Sarah Sanders lied to the news media …
Devin Nunes was your basic run-of-the-mill congressman best known for regularly introducing bills to bring more water to Central Valley farmers that got nowhere when he became chairman of the House Intelligence Committee in 2017.
The committee’s main task was to investigate allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and Nunes’ bravura performance as goaltender for the Trump administration while trying to undermine the Mueller investigation turned him into a Republican superstar.
Nunes has since become a regular on Fox News and has even been the featured attraction at a fundraising dinner for Rep. Doug LaMalfa and other events. But the increased notoriety has also brought with it closer scrutiny and criticism the congressman apparently doesn’t like. Naturally, he is suing.
First up was a $250 million lawsuit against Twitter and three users, alleging that he was defamed and that Twitter engaged in “shadow banning” of conservative opinions and selectively enforces its terms of service to benefit opponents of the Republican Party. Defendants in the suit include a Twitter user purporting to be his mother, a user operating an account called “Devin Nunes’ Cow,” and GOP communications strategist Liz Mair.
The suit claims that, “The substance and timing of the tweets, retweets, replies and likes by Mair, Devin Nunes’ Mom and Devin Nunes’ Cow demonstrate that all three bad actors were and are engaged in a joint effort together and with others to defame Nunes and interfere” with his professional duties.
Nunes’ blow against ridicule has apparently backfired. Since the suit was filed, the number of “Devin Nunes’ Cow” followers has zoomed to 623,000 — surpassing Nunes’ own Twitter followers — and may have led to cancellation of a Republican fundraising dinner.
A Lincoln Reagan Dinner, featuring Nunes, was scheduled for April 11 in Fresno until opponents got wind of it and threatened to appear at the event wearing cow costumes and ringing cowbells. GOP officials canceled the event for “security reasons,” prompting online comments such as “cows can be dangerous” and accusing the organizers of “crying over spilt milk” and being “cow-ards.” Just your basic ridicule.
Nunes followed that up with a $150 million defamation suit against the Fresno Bee and its owner, McClatchy Company (also publisher of the Sacramento Bee), for allegedly tarnishing his reputation by publishing a story headlined: “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event.”
The article reported on a lawsuit filed by an employee of Alpha Omega Winery, in which Nunes was an investor and limited partner. The complaint alleged the employee was assigned to staff a charity cruise on San Francisco Bay in which cocaine use and prostitution were prevalent, putting her in an untenable position that violated her civil rights and constituted sexual harassment. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
The article stated that Nunes was not on the boat, and it did not otherwise accuse him of any crime or impropriety. McClatchy claims Nunes declined multiple opportunities to comment before the story was published, and didn’t request a correction or retraction after it was published.
Still, Nunes claimed in his suit that the article unfairly linked him to the scandal and that he had to “spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (with mailers, radio, television and digital ads) defending himself from the malicious attacks that went on for months through the 2018 Congressional campaign.”
Nunes is on shaky ground here for a couple of reasons:
Truth is an absolute defense against such suits. Nunes will have a hard time jumping that hurdle because he apparently never requested any corrections.
The media gets wide latitude when it comes to reporting potentially defamatory statements made during judicial proceedings. Even if the claims in the suit against the winery were untrue, their presence in court documents protects anybody who reports the claims from libel exposure.
The U.S. Supreme Court has set a high standard for claims of defamation against a public official. In its New York Times v. Sullivan decision, the court said a public official must show that a statement was made with “actual malice,” defined as “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard” for whether it was false.
Nunes has joined a parade of others connected in various ways to the Russian investigation that are trying to bully the media with lawsuits. Associated Press, Buzzfeed, The Guardian and National Public Radio have all been sued over their reporting of the investigation.
“These lawsuits serve a purpose,” the Sacramento Bee pointed out in an editorial. “First, they scare critics who can’t afford legal costs. Second, they force news organizations to waste precious time and money on defense. Finally, they’re designed to confuse the public about reality by attacking the credibility of media organizations.”
If Nunes pursues the suits, it won’t be the first time he has embraced shaky propositions. He’s a firm believer that the “deep state” is trying to thwart the Trump administration, complains about the spread of “socialism” while his family dairy farm takes government subsidies, and professes to find a radical agenda behind environmentalist efforts to deny Central Valley farmers all of the water they think they deserve.
In an appearance with Fox News talking head Sean Hannity several years ago, Nunes said: “When you look at the radical environmental fringe, there is no question they are tied closely to the Communist Party. I have the documents that prove it.” He has yet to produce the documents.
Nunes’ claims against Twitter and McClatchy hold about as much water as his theories about California’s water shortage.
George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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