Suspended Fox News host Eric Bolling filed a defamation lawsuit last week against journalist Yashar Ali, accusing the freelance writer of publishing false and misleading statements about his character. Critics have called the legal action a PR stunt and an act of intimidation.
The suit came almost immediately after Bolling found himself suspended in the wake of a report that Ali wrote for HuffPost while under contract with the news organization. In it, Ali alleged that Bolling sent lewd text messages — including graphic photographs of himself — to his female colleagues. Since Bolling's suspension, at least one former Fox News guest has publicly accused him of sexual harassment.
Ali's attorney, famed litigator Patricia Glaser, responded to Bolling's lawsuit with a letter, calling Bolling's case "frivolous" and "devoid of merit."
Salon recently spoke with Jane Kirtley, a media law professor at the University of Minnesota and the former executive director of Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, about the lawsuit and its implications on the media industry as a whole.
Kirtley did not exactly express shock that Bolling brought the suit.
"In this litigious time, where we're seeing a variety of public figures bring lawsuits against the news media. I can't say I was really surprised because the revelations were pretty explosive and led to Bolling being suspended," Kirtley said. "It is not unusual for people in that situation to lash back."
Kirtley did note that Bolling himself is a member of the news media, which brings a unique twist to the case.
"Anybody who is in the media ought to be making a calculation that even if they prevail in a lawsuit like this, there is a possibility that they will result in making really bad legal precedent. It could come back to have an effect on them in the future," she said.
Journalists around the country, for their part, have seemed to welcome the lawsuit, anticipating a potential discovery process that could, indeed, reveal even more unpleasant details about Bolling's behavior. Kirtley said that the scope of discovery will be subject to the New York state court judge assigned to the case, but it would likely include emails, text messages and anything else Bolling could have used to engage in the behavior Ali alleged.
"There could be some posturing and bickering over whether it was anything he had ever said or constrained in some way," Kirtley said, "but given the nature of the allegation, I don’t see how you can argue that the media defendant doesn’t have to explore those forms of communications."
Many legal experts, including Ali's attorney, have made hay that Bolling did not name HuffPost in a suit, but Kirtley said that was not atypical.
"It is not unusual for the plaintiff to sue just the writer, frankly as an intimidation move, unless you are talking about a multi-million dollar freelancer," Kirtley said. "It is not likely that the writer will have resources that a news organization would have, so they are seen as more vulnerable and prepared to settled."
Fortunately for Ali, HuffPost appears prepared to defend its freelancer. Lydia Polgreen, the editor in chief of HuffPost, indicated as much in a tweet last week.
"It’s laudable that the Huffington Post has stepped up and said that they will defend him. I don’t know the nature of their contract, but that isn’t always the case," Kirtley said.
Kirtley re-emphasized that these were trying times for journalists, especially after recent defamation cases that have gone in favor of the plaintiffs.
"The 'Gawker' case was a kind of a horrifying example of how Hulk Hogan’s crew basically went after the writers in these stories in an incredibly aggressive way," Kirtley said. "After there was a judgment, they were going after their personal assets. It was a vindictive move in that case."
"I can’t say that is the motivation here," she added. "But those are things we have seen in the past, and those are techniques that could be in play here."
The media law professor said she had concerns about the anonymous sources cited in this case. The state of New York has a robust shield law, which provides extensive privilege to journalists trying to protect their sources. Even so, it is often difficult to protect sources in a libel case, Kirtley said. Ali referenced an astounding 14 anonymous sources in his original story, so if this case proceeds to trial, many current and former Fox News employees may be unveiled as the people who brought down Bolling.
Whether Bolling intended it or not, this lawsuit marks another defamation case attempting to silence a journalist. Ali's reporting uncovered repugnant behavior of a man who has aspirations for the U.S. Senate. Now that dream appears to be collapsing, and Bolling is taking it out on Ali, a freelance journalist trying to hold the powerful and elite accountable.
But this is somewhat different than the assault on Gawker. While Bolling might not consider himself a member of the press, he undoubtedly works in the media. Fox News has been called biased and a propaganda machine, but the network does employ real journalists who, like Ali, are trying to cover real stories that matter. Bolling's lawsuit is not just targeting the reporter who wrote a damning story about him, it is targeting every journalist who works in the industry — his colleagues included.
In his spite, Bolling's not only potentially allowing more damning evidence against him to surface, he's also threatening the very industry that's made him famous.