Famed attorney Alan Dershowitz sued CNN for defamation related to its coverage of his argument in the first Trump impeachment trial. He alleges that CNN misleadingly edited a clip of his statements to give a false impression about his argument… and then propagated that misperception by replaying the clip and repeating it through pundits who based their arguments on the inaccurate summary of his statement. CNN filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that his claim does not rise to the high level needed to show defamation against a public figure, among other things. The judge ruled that the claim does meet that burden, allowing the case to go forward, and scoring a huge win for Dershowitz.
One of the arguments made by CNN is that their coverage of Dershowitz’s arguments should be protected by the fair report privilege. The court agreed that verbatim statements in a public proceeding like an impeachment trial are generally protected when they are repeated verbatim, or are an “accurate or a fair abridgement.” But here, Dershowitz’s claim was that there was a deliberate scheme to defraud by playing the truncated clip, and then playing the pundits’ statements to present the comments in a defamatory matter. He will still have to prove it at trial, but Dershowitz’s allegations are sufficient to defeat the motion to dismiss. The court agreed with Dershowitz that “CNN presented an official proceeding in a misleading manner and the fair report privilege does not apply.”
This is bad for CNN. The court went on to explain that the abridgement of Dershowitz’s statement was inaccurate, in that it omitted a crucial qualification. The court said CNN could argue to a jury that Dershowitz’s statement was ambiguous and that CNN was reasonable in its belief about what Dershowitz argued. That’s a tough sell in light of the qualifying statements that CNN chose to redact from the clip. A failure to defeat a motion to dismiss is usually when media companies see the writing on the wall and look to settle. But beyond the liability for damages here, it’s bad for CNN because the judge essentially made a finding that CNN was presenting false reporting. The court said, “For the fair report privilege to apply, a defendant must have ‘presented a fair and accurate report of the source documents.’ The CNN broadcasts do not meet that standard.” [citation omitted].
Ouch. The “Most Trusted Name in News” just had a federal judge make a finding that it failed to present fair and accurate information.
This could also be bad for other media outlets, particularly those of the cable talk-show type. While it may feel good for them to dance a little over CNN’s misfortune, many other stations have used the format where they play a clip, and then have pundits attack the speaker. This ruling suggests than if they A: play a clip that is edited or redacted so as to be misleading, and B: then repeat it through pundits, even if those commentators couch their punditry as criticism. That’s been a common practice on many media outlets, and CNN has now shown that they can be called on that practice. This is an important ruling for defamation law.