April 11, 2019

Republican Congressman Devin Nunes of California is suing the McClatchy Corporation for a story his hometown newspaper published, exposing questionable activities of a business Nunes has invested in.

Lawsuits like this are intended to create a chilling effect on journalists who would hold their locally elected officials accountable. And that effect is damaging when you consider the fragile state of local newspapers. Most are marginally profitable, with declining revenues. The editorial staff is roughly one-third the size it was a decade ago. So the hard cost of defending a lawsuit, even one that is dismissed at the early stages, has consequences. Even if the suit is dismissed, the plaintiff has substantially weakened a publisher’s ability to hire reporters who hold public officials accountable.

Newspaper companies must pay their lawyers fees and a retainer does not normally cover the costs of defending a lawsuit. While newspapers have insurance for a judgment or a settlement, they rarely recoup their lawyers’ fees, even when a suit is dismissed.

The average cost to get a defamation or libel suit against a newspaper dismissed is $500,000, according to industry experts.

Nunes’ suit claims the Fresno Bee defamed him and destroyed his reputation because McClatchy was trying to interfere with his ability to lead the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails and the alleged collusion of President Donald Trump with Russia.

The story in question relies on court documents to describe a raucous party on a yacht, owned by a winery in which Nunes is an investor. The party came to light when an employee of the winery sued for a hostile work environment, claiming her objection to the cocaine use, prostitutes and suggestion that she have sex with the men on the boat caused her employer to reduce her hours.

Nunes is fairly transparent about his desire to harm the Bee. The New York Times story points out Nunes’ apparent quest for vindication: “If you’re out there and you lied and you defamed, we’re going to come after you,” Mr. Nunes said to Sean Hannity, a Fox News host.

A close read of the Bee story reveals that it does not state, nor does it imply, that Nunes was at the party in question. Instead, the paper informs their readers, which includes Nunes’ constituency, that their congressman is an investor and limited partner of the winery, which ultimately settled with its employee.

There’s no evidence that the Fresno Bee lied. The lawsuit itself claims the Fresno Bee story implied Nunes “was involved with cocaine and underage prostitutes.” The Fresno Bee story makes no such claim. The story relies on court documents to describe a raucous party.

Nunes’s suit goes on to express displeasure at the way the Bee has covered his leadership of the Russia interference investigation.

The suit claims, “Nunes endured a multi-front, orchestrated defamation campaign of stunning breadth and scope, one that no human being should ever have to bear and suffer in their whole life.”

Nunes’s suit also claims that because some people in Virginia read McClatchy, the state is the appropriate venue for a lawsuit as opposed to California where, a McClatchy statement points out, the law requires that plaintiffs seek corrections and clarifications first before suing a publisher.

McClatchy’s headquarters are in Sacramento, California. The company owns zero newspapers in Virginia.

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Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty…
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