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

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY MCCLATCHY CAL­I­FOR­NIA OPIN­ION ED­I­TORS

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, Va.

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, N.C.

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.

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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