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Devin Nunes said the quiet part out loud about his defamation lawsuit targeting journalists

"I am absolutely sure that they do not want this to get to discovery so that we find out who their sources are."

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 06: Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on February 6, 2018. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 06: Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on February 6, 2018. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) appeared on Fox News Wednesday and admitted to frivolously using the legal system to attack and threaten journalists.

Nunes filed a $150 million lawsuit against McClatchy, one of the country’s largest newspaper chains, over a May 2018 article in the Fresno Bee. The story detailed a lawsuit filed by an employee of a Napa Valley winery where Nunes is a large investor. The employee alleged she was stranded aboard a yacht with a group of men who purchased the cruise as part of a charity auction and openly used cocaine and hired sex workers, some of whom appeared to be under the age of consent. The winery settled with the employee in 2016.

Nunes, who has not disputed the details contained in the paper’s reporting, sued the Fresno Bee this month arguing that the paper defamed him by highlighting his investment in the embattled winery.

“Throughout 2018, McClatchy and its reporter, MacKenzie Mays, acting in concert with a Virginia political operative and her handlers, schemed to defame Plaintiff and destroy his reputation,” the lawsuit reads. “The central purpose of the scheme was to interfere with Plaintiff’s Congressional investigation of corruption by the Clinton campaign and alleged ‘collusion’ between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 presidential election.”

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Legal experts on the left and right agree that Nunes’ suit is without merit, and many have speculated its real purpose is to intimidate and threaten journalists.

Speculation gave way to certainty when Nunes admitted on Wednesday that his suit is an attempt to expose the paper’s sources.

“I am absolutely sure that they do not want this to get to discovery so that we find out who their sources are,” Nunes told Fox & Friends. “Somebody gave them the phony information that the National Rifle Association was involved with Russian collusion. Somebody gave them the phony information that Cohen was in Prague when he wasn’t.”

Neither the NRA’s collusion with Russia nor Michael Cohen’s whereabouts during the 2016 election are related to the suit that Nunes filed against McClatchy. But if Nunes was on a fishing expedition for sources, a 15-second Google search could have saved him quite a bit of hassle.

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The Justice Department was the source that confirmed Maria Butina was instructed “to jointly arrange introductions to U.S. persons having influence in American politics, including an organization promoting gun rights (hereinafter ‘GUN RIGHTS ORGANIZATION’), for the purpose of advancing the agenda of the Russian Federation.” And the origins of Cohen’s alleged trip to Prague — a trip that Cohen himself has emphatically denied — stem from the so-called Steele dossier, the unverified opposition research document compiled during the 2016 presidential campaign.

Of course, journalists do rely heavily on well-placed sources, sometimes anonymous ones, to do their jobs effectively. Many states, including California, have robust shield laws designed to protect journalists from being forced to disclose their sources. But there is no federal shield law, and more than a dozen states have failed to pass their own versions. Perhaps that’s why, despite living in California and suing a California newspaper owned by a California corporation, Nunes filed his suit in a state court in Virginia, which has no shield law.

This isn’t the first time the Republican has sought to manipulate the judicial system for his own personal or political gain. Just last month, Nunes filed a $250 million lawsuit against Twitter and three users on the site who have routinely made fun of him, falsely accusing the tech giant of “shadow-banning” his account and targeting Republicans on their platform.

Even though Nunes’ suit is destined for the trash heap, the mere act of filing it could have the kind of chilling effect on journalism that was Nunes’ real objective from the beginning.

He is hardly the first Republican to follow the lead of President Donald Trump, whose entire political and business career is built on the lie that mainstream news organizations are untrustworthy. His cries of “fake news” have been echoed at every level of government — mostly by Republicans — and the message is starting to stick.

“If you look at serious polling, it shows huge disparities between Republicans and Democrats over respect and trust in the press,” said Richard Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation. “And so for Republicans, positions that 10 years ago would have been unheard of, are now applauded by a lot of the rank and file voters who have no patience for what they see as news organizations that are attacking their candidates.”

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The public’s deteriorating trust in news sources has emboldened lawmakers and others in positions of power to take more and more aggressive stances against critical news coverage. In Georgia, Republican legislators introduced a bill that would create a “Journalism Ethics Board” to regulate and accredit news organizations, and force reporters to turn over notes, recordings, and other source material to anyone who requested them. Griffiths said the bill likely won’t amount to anything, but called it a “warning shot” across the bow of news organizations, one that would have been unthinkable in the recent past.

“Ten years ago, the six educated people who sponsored that bill would have been laughed out of town,” he told ThinkProgress. “Now it’s not so much laughter. I can see that those folks could go back to their communities and, based on the polling data, they would receive a pat on the back.”

Trust in mainstream news organizations has dropped precipitously during the first two years of the Trump administration, thanks largely to self-identified Republicans, less than half of whom find mainstream media sources credible. By comparison, nearly seven in 10 Democrats trust the credibility of mainstream news sources.