Opinion

Devin Nunes wants to intimidate the press with lawsuits – and he’s not alone

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., returns to a secure area in the Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., returns to a secure area in the Capitol, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) AP

The McClatchy Company started in California’s Central Valley in 1857 and began publication of The Fresno Bee in 1922.

When Rep. Devin Nunes filed a lawsuit against McClatchy and The Bee this week, he didn’t do it here at home.

Instead, the nine-term Republican congressman from Tulare filed the lawsuit 2,600 miles away, in Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s unclear whether Nunes believes suing in Virginia rather than California affords a strategic advantage, but this curious decision highlights the strange nature of his latest attack on the press.

Efforts to make his claims seem relevant there smack of desperation and lies. For example, he claims McClatchy “is at home in Virginia” and prints newspapers there. But the nearest McClatchy newspaper is 200 miles away in Durham, North Carolina.

Of course, McClatchy also publishes the Charlotte Observer, leading us to wonder if perhaps Nunes has confused Charlotte with Charlottesville. Hopefully, Virginia’s judges will see through his transparent attempt to abuse their courts for free publicity.

The Fresno Bee is “at home” in California. That’s more than can be said for Nunes, who avoids his constituents like a plague. His family moved its dairy farm to Iowa years ago, according to Esquire Magazine’s Ryan Lizza. Since his first election in 2002, Nunes has transformed into an absentee politician who prefers the Washington swamp to the Valley communities he’s supposed to represent.

Even the scandal at the heart of his defamation lawsuit takes place somewhere else. Nunes’ lawsuit hinges on a May 23, 2018, Fresno Bee story headlined: “A yacht, cocaine, prostitutes: Winery partly owned by Nunes sued after fundraiser event.”

Nunes says the story unfairly links him to a scandal at a Napa winery he partially owns. Yet the story – which details how the Alpha Omega winery yacht was allegedly sailed in San Francisco Bay while a group of men held a cocaine-fueled party with sex workers – never alleged Nunes was on the yacht. It did accurately name him as a partial investor in the winery.

Nunes may not like it, but when a company partially owned by a member of Congress gets caught up in a scandal involving illegal drugs and prostitutes, it’s news. He declined to comment for the story, and he never asked The Bee for a correction or retraction under California law. He now complains that he had to “spend hundreds of thousands of dollars (with mailers, radio, television and digital ads) defending himself from the malicious attacks that went on for months through the 2018 Congressional election.”

Breaking news: Area congressman forced to campaign.

Devin Nunes is a Republican representative for California’s 22nd congressional district.

Nunes’ attacks on the press won’t affect McClatchy’s mission to report the truth as a champion for local news. In the United States, the First Amendment protects press freedom, including criticism of public officials. And in American law, “the truth is an absolute defense” in defamation cases.

It’s a different story in authoritarian countries where government critics face punishment.

In 2012, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law to criminalize “libel,” especially criticism of public officials, according to Human Rights Watch. The change meant any press outlet or citizen could face steep fines for criticizing a public official.

Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed interest in following Putin’s example and cracking down on press freedom. He has yet to try, though he often raises the prospect of suing journalists on Twitter. His political rise has also been accompanied by a disturbing trend of high profile lawsuits against media organizations.

Wealthy individuals – most of them connected in some way to the Russia investigation – have sued the Associated Press, Buzzfeed, the Guardian and National Public Radio for their reporting. In fact, the lawyer who sued NPR on behalf of a billionaire Trump supporter is the same lawyer Nunes hired to sue McClatchy.

Before pleading guilty and becoming a star witness for the Mueller investigation, former Trump Attorney Michael Cohen also sued Buzzfeed, though he later dropped the suit.

Nunes, who drew national attention for his bizarre attempt to undermine the Mueller investigation last year, has now adopted this bullying lawsuit tactic. Last month, he sued Twitter. Now he’s suing the local paper. What’s going on here?

These lawsuits serve a purpose. First, they scare critics who can’t afford legal costs. Second, they force news organizations to waste precious time and money on defense. Finally, they’re designed to confuse the public about reality by attacking the credibility of media organizations.

Before 2016, Nunes was a run-of-the-mill congressman mostly unknown outside of his district. The Fresno Bee Editorial Board endorsed him in every election. Since 2016, he’s morphed into an erratic and feverish political bomb-thrower who’s more at home in a Fox News studio than in Fresno.

The people of California’s 22nd congressional district deserve better. No amount of frivolous lawsuits filed in faraway states will stop us from reporting the truth and holding our local elected officials accountable.

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