A Defamation Case Against CNN Moves Forward; Network Accused of Actions It Slammed Fox News for Taking

AP Photo/Ron Harris

In Florida, an appeals court ruled that a claim for punitive damages in a defamation suit brought against CNN will be able to continue, defeating the cable news network’s attempt to have the claim dismissed. There is notably very little concern or condemnation seen across the press industry, considering many outlets were filled with enthusiastic energy when Fox News was facing the Dominion Voting defamation suit. The acts CNN is accused of taking trended extremely close to those that earned Fox so much media scorn. 

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The case is brought by Zachary Young, who is a private contractor who worked in Afghanistan to aid in the evacuation of citizens. He alleges that a report on the program “The Lead With Jake Tapper,” made by journalist Alex Marquardt, mischaracterized his work, labeling him as a "black market" exploiter, and negatively impacted his business.

As CNN sought to dismiss the claim for punitive damages, Young managed to bring his documentation, which met the necessary threshold. The court ruled that there appears sufficient proof that the network may have acted in a malicious fashion and that the claim could be brought before a jury for judgment:

After reviewing the totality of the proffered evidence in the light most favorable to Young, we conclude that he did. Young sufficiently proffered evidence of actual malice, express malice, and a level of conduct outrageous enough to open the door for him to seek punitive damages."

What makes this a compelling case is what Young was able to supply to bolster his claim of harm as a result of malicious activity. First, let us harken back to that Fox-Dominion case, specifically what we have been told by many in the press regarding how it reflects on that news network. Despite settling out of court with no judgment entered, this was held up by many in the press as “proof” that Fox News lies in its reports and that it is not a real journalism outlet.

Among those delivering scorn has been Jake Tapper. After the news came out of the settlement with Dominion, Tapper was not the least bit neutral in his reaction. 

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"I'm sorry this is going to be difficult to say with a straight face," said Tapper, before reading out a section of the statement in which Fox claimed the settlement "reflects Fox's continued commitment to the highest journalistic standards" and "allows the country to move forward from these issues." Tapper said the settlement "can only be interpreted as one of the ugliest and most embarrassing moments in the history of journalism."

Rather brash words to come from the network that previously settled its own defamation suit, that being the case brought by high school student Nicholas Sandmann, who had been smeared by CNN over his encounter in D.C. caught on film and mischaracterized. Now, Tapper has a report aired on his own program coming under the exact same scrutiny.

In Young’s case, he points out how he was the lone figure featured in the Marquardt segment, in which he was described as working in the “black market” and was said to be exploiting Afghani citizens by charging excessive fees to expedite them out of the country as it was falling under control of the Taliban, following the disastrous pull out by American forces. The court found that the report carried some accusatory content:

“We agree with Young that there is no doubt the term 'black market' implies illegality.”

The revealing aspect is that Young provided internal communication from CNN that showed there was sufficient doubt cast on the Marquardt report. In the court opinion, they noted key pieces of communication discussing concerns that the report had insufficient support to warrant airing it. When looking to supply proof of a news network acting with malicious intent, this segment showing there were internal comments about the flaws in the report and pushing it onto the broadcast regardless is pretty revealing.

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Young proffered CNN messages and emails that showed internal concern about the completeness and veracity of the reporting—the story is “a mess,” “incomplete,” not “fleshed out for digital,” “the story is 80% emotion, 20% obscured fact,” and “full of holes like Swiss cheese.” Yet, the Triad approved publication. Young also proffered a message exchange he had with Marquardt just hours before publication where he advised there were factual inaccuracies in the reporting. CNN published anyway. 

Consider what we have been told of Fox — that it does not conduct itself with the same level of journalistic integrity as other news organizations and that the network willingly lies in its reporting. The likes of Brian Stelter and Oliver Darcy loved to proclaim how Fox does not have the editorial rigor of CNN, leading to flawed reporting. This entry mentions “The Triad ” — that is CNN’s triple departmental layer of vetting, involving Editorial, Legal, and Standards. Somehow this rigorous process signed off on a piece that was said internally to be composed mostly of emotional opinion and full of factual gaps.

This may explain willful manipulation in the reporting, but equally compelling is the claim of malice, something shown rather distinctly. In further pieces of communication Young provided, it appears there were multiple instances where Marquardt and others at CNN were referring to Young in a derisive, vulgar fashion and essentially proclaiming how they were going to bring him down. 

Young proffered internal communication showing, at minimum, CNN employees had little regard for him. In those messages, CNN employees called him a “shitbag” and “a-hole” and remarked they were “going to nail this Zachary Young mfucker.” Marquardt referred to him as “fucking Young” and quipped, “it’s your funeral bucko.

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None of this looks good for CNN. Of course, this is all preliminary ruling, simply allowing the claim to proceed, but given what we are looking at, there is a very good chance that the network will end up settling before going to trial. And should this happen, there is an almost ironclad chance that we will not see near the level of condemnation from other news networks about how this reflects harshly on CNN’s journalistic character.

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