LOS ANGELES (CN) — Online journo-activist Yashar Ali’s lawsuit against Los Angeles Magazine appears likely to survive an anti-SLAPP motion by the skin of its teeth, after an LA County judge on Tuesday said he was inclined to block two of the complaint's causes of action but allow a third one to go through.
The magazine published a 6,000-word profile of Ali in 2021, calling him a “Twitter power broker,” and a “political-operative-turned-social-media-muckraker” capable of fomenting waves of online outrage against such celebrities as Sharon Osbourne, food writer Alison Roman and then-LA Mayor Eric Garcetti. The less-than-flattering article portrayed Ali as an emotionally unstable “shoot-from-the-hip” reporter with a remarkable talent for fostering online relationships with everyone from CNN’s Jake Tapper to comedian Kathy Griffin, and something of a "grifter" who could, at times, take advantage of people.
Ali filed a defamation suit against Los Angeles Magazine in 2022, claiming the profile included "false statements... to support the narrative that Ali supposedly is a sloppy journalist who eschews fact-checking and that Ali back stabs his friends to get ahead in his profession." One misleading section of the story — "possibly [the] most damaging" one, according to the complaint — implied that Ali became suicidal during the article's fact-checking process, shortly before publication.
"In making that statement, the article falsely implies that Ali acknowledged the truth of the supposed revelations in the article and was distraught that the public was going to learn the supposed truth about him," Ali said in his first complaint, adding that in reality, he had been depressed for months, a condition that had more to do with the recent death of his uncle from Covid than with the magazine story.
In a written declaration, Ali said the profile caused him "mental anguish" and had badly damaged his reputation as a journalist, and that his number of Twitter followers and paid subscribers to his newsletter had substantially declined.
In December, Ali filed an amended complaint aimed at surviving an expected anti-SLAPP motion, this time with only three claimed inaccuracies to support the defamation cause of action. The new complaint also added a third claim for breach of oral contract. Ali accused the magazine's author, Peter Kiefer, of making a deal: In exchange for "many hours" of interview time, Kiefer "would keep all interviews 'on background,' and only use quotes from Ali upon Ali’s approval." Ali says Kiefer reneged on the promise, not only using quotes without Ali's approval but taking some of them out of context.
For example, Ali says, the article quotes Ali saying, "I’m a caretaker for many people... Something that frustrates me is that people don’t take care of people like me.” Ali claims that what he actually said was, “Something that frustrates me is that people don’t take care of people like me because they don’t think I need it.”
He adds in the amended complaint, "The change in context made the quote materially different in that the longer quote does not suggest that people treat Ali coldly, but rather than people do not realize that Ali needs caretaking because of the way Ali conducts himself."
Ali's claims, if true, would amount to a significant breach of journalistic ethics, though seeing them as a basis for a civil complaint is highly unusual.
Los Angeles Magazine responded to the amended complaint with an anti-SLAPP motion, a legal maneuver often used by news outlets to dismiss lawsuits aimed at chilling free speech. They are frequently effective against defamation claims, since all the news outlets have to prove is that they didn't act with "actual malice" — that is, even if they made an error, they tried to get the story right.
In his tentative ruling, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Gregory Keosian said he would likely grant the anti-SLAPP motion with regards to the defamation and fraud claims, writing that Ali and his lawyers hadn't shown that the article's supposedly misleading statements were actually false, and that any promises that Kiefer made to keep certain comments "off-the-record" were not fraudulently made — that is, even if he reneged, the promise itself hadn't necessarily been a lie.
But Keosian said he was was inclined to let the breach of contract claim survive, writing in a tentative ruling that he found LA Magazine's argument against the claim to be "unpersuasive." The judge did note, however, that only "nominal damages" are available for such a claim.
Both sets of lawyers tried to persuade the judge to change his mind.
"Looking at the full context of the article, is the article saying that Mr. Ali is this really well-connected person?" said Ali's lawyer Steve Stiglitz. "Or is the article saying lots of bad things?"
He added: "The clear point of the article is that Mr. Ali is disloyal and attacked his friends."
Richard Spirra, the attorney representing LA Magazine, said that Ali hadn't produced any evidence that the supposedly out-of-context quotes were used to purposely imply false and negative things about Ali.
"There's no evidence that that implication was implied," said Spirra.
The judge said that he would consider the arguments before issuing a final ruling on the anti-SLAPP motion.
After the hearing, Ali's other attorney, Bryan Freedman, said in an email: “Notwithstanding the usual First Amendment protections for news organizations, this case will move forward at least on a breach of contract basis. That breach by LA Magazine caused millions of dollars in damages which Yashar fully intends to collect.”
Reached by phone, Spirra declined to comment on the hearing, except to say that he would "wait and see" what the Keosian's final ruling says.
Editor's note: In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this story has written for Los Angeles Magazine.
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