MSNBC’s top-rated host Rachel Maddow devoted a segment in 2019 to accusing the right-wing cable outlet One America News (OAN) of being a paid propaganda outlet for the Kremlin. Discussing a Daily Beast article which noted that one OAN reporter was a “Russian national” who was simultaneously writing copy for the Russian-owned outlet Sputnik on a freelance contract, Maddow escalated the allegation greatly into a broad claim about OAN’s real identity and purpose: “in this case,” she announced, “the most obsequiously pro-Trump right wing news outlet in America really literally is paid Russian propaganda.”
In response, OAN sued Maddow, MSNBC, and its parent corporation Comcast, Inc. for defamation, alleging that it was demonstrably false that the network, in Maddow’s words, “literally is paid Russian propaganda.” In an oddly overlooked ruling, an Obama-appointed federal judge, Cynthia Bashant, dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that even Maddow’s own audience understands that her show consists of exaggeration, hyperbole, and pure opinion, and therefore would not assume that such outlandish accusations are factually true even when she uses the language of certainty and truth when presenting them (“literally is paid Russian propaganda”).
In concluding that Maddow’s statement would be understood even by her own viewers as non-factual, the judge emphasized that what Maddow does in general is not present news but rather hyperbole and exploitation of actual news to serve her liberal activism:
On one hand, a viewer who watches news channels tunes in for facts and the goings-on of the world. MSNBC indeed produces news, but this point must be juxtaposed with the fact that Maddow made the allegedly defamatory statement on her own talk show news segment where she is invited and encouraged to share her opinions with her viewers. Maddow does not keep her political views a secret, and therefore, audiences could expect her to use subjective language that comports with her political opinions.
Thus, Maddow’s show is different than a typical news segment where anchors inform viewers about the daily news. The point of Maddow’s show is for her to provide the news but also to offer her opinions as to that news. Therefore, the Court finds that the medium of the alleged defamatory statement makes it more likely that a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implies an assertion of objective fact.
The judge’s observations about the specific segment at issue — in which Maddow accused a competitor of being “literally paid Russian propaganda” — was even more damning. Maddow’s own viewers, ruled the court, not only expect but desire that she will not provide the news in factual form but will exaggerate and even distort reality in order to shape her opinion-driven analysis (emphasis added):
Viewers expect her to do so, as it is indeed her show, and viewers watch the segment with the understanding that it will contain Maddow’s “personal and subjective views” about the news. See id. Thus, the Court finds that as a part of the totality of the circumstances, the broad context weighs in favor of a finding that the alleged defamatory statement is Maddow’s opinion and exaggeration of the Daily Beast article, and that reasonable viewers would not take the statement as factual. . . .
Here, 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.” 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. A reasonable viewer would not actually think OAN is paid Russian propaganda, instead, he or she would follow the facts of the Daily Beast article; that OAN and Sputnik share a reporter and both pay this reporter to write articles. Anything beyond this is Maddow’s opinion or her exaggeration of the facts.
In sum, ruled the court, Rachel Maddow is among those “speakers whose statements cannot reasonably be interpreted as allegations of fact.” Despite Maddow’s use of the word “literally” to accuse OAN of being a “paid Russian propaganda” outlet, the court dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that, given Maddow’s conduct and her audience’s awareness of who she is and what she does, “the Court finds that the contested statement is an opinion that cannot serve as the basis for a defamation claim.”
What makes this particularly notable and ironic is that a similar argument was made a year later by lawyers for Fox News when defending a segment that appeared on the program of its highest-rated program, Tucker Carlson Tonight. That was part of a lawsuit brought by the former model Karen McDougal, who claimed Carlson slandered her by saying she “extorted” former President Trump by demanding payments in exchange for her silence about an extramarital affair she claimed to have with him.