SAN DIEGO (CN) — Within 72 hours of hearing arguments from an attorney for MSNBC host Rachel Maddow why a conservative news network’s defamation case against the political pundit should be tossed, a federal judge agreed and on Friday ruled a statement Maddow made during a broadcast was opinion.
U.S. District Judge Cynthia Bashant found in a 17-page order that six words uttered by Maddow during a segment July 22, 2019, about a story by The Daily Beast — which revealed a One America News Network political reporter was also on the payroll of the Sputnik Russian news outlet — was opinion not subject to defamation laws.
During the segment, Maddow said OAN “really literally is paid Russian propaganda,” a statement San Diego-based OAN parent company Herring Networks said amounted to defamation in a lawsuit filed this past September.
But Bashant seemed skeptical of that claim during telephonic oral arguments in the case Tuesday. She confirmed that skepticism in her order dismissing the case Friday.
“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.
“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,” the judge added.
In dismissing the case, Bashant paved the way for OAN to pay MSNBC and Maddow’s legal fees.
The network and host are represented by Los Angeles firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. The law firm declined to comment on Friday’s order, as did a representative from MSNBC parent company NBC.
OAN attorney Amnon Siegel, of Miller Barondess, said in an interview Herring Networks plans to appeal the dismissal.
“The only way the court can take the case away from a jury at this point is if it concludes no reasonable person could interpret the statement as a statement of fact,” Siegel said, adding: “The judge has a very limited role on a motion like this. If there is any uncertainty, the judge is supposed to allow the case to proceed.”
OAN said in a statement Maddow’s contention it was “Russian propaganda” is “demonstrably false.”
“OAN is owned by the Herring family in San Diego. The Herring family launched OAN on July 4, 2013, to provide timely national and international news 24 hours a day. The Herrings and OAN do not receive any money from the Russian government, OAN does not get paid by Russia, and OAN has absolutely no relationship with Russia,” the network said in a statement.
During oral arguments in the case Tuesday, Bashant indicated Maddow’s contested statement should be considered in the context of the entire segment.
In her order Friday, she quoted the comments that sandwiched Maddow’s statement including asides calling OAN a “super right-wing news outlet” and referring to the story as “the giblets the news gods dropped off their plates for us to eat off the floor today.” She also laughed throughout her commentary.
While there was no question Maddow’s statement arose from protected free speech activity guaranteed by the First Amendment — a concession OAN made — Bashant ruled a reasonable juror or fact finder could not find Maddow’s statements were based on fact rather than opinion.
The judge made note of the “medium in which the statement was made” — a political talk show — rather than “typical” news show.
“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,” Bashsant wrote.
“Maddow’s tone could be described as surprise and glee at the unexpectedness of the story,” Bashant added.
Because viewers watch Maddow’s show “with the understanding that it will contain Maddow’s ‘personal and subjective views’ about the news,” Bashant found a reasonable viewer of the program would not conclude her statement was based on fact.
And even though OAN argued Maddow’s use of the word “literally” was an allegation OAN was actually “Russian propaganda,” Bashant found the political pundit’s use of the word was hyperbolic and exaggerated, not factual.