Trump Sues NBC Affiliate Over 'Defamatory' COVID-19 Ad

By Dave Simpson
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Law360 (April 13, 2020, 9:46 PM EDT) -- President Donald Trump's reelection campaign hit an NBC affiliate with a defamation suit in Wisconsin state court Monday after it allowed a Democratic Party super PAC to run an advertisement claiming Trump called the coronavirus a "hoax."

WJFW-NBC should not have broadcast Super PAC Priorities USA's ad, which it knew, or should have known, used digital technology to "manufacture" a "blatantly false statement that was never said by" Trump, Donald J. Trump for President Inc. said in its suit.

The statement in the ad, "The coronavirus, this is their new hoax," was edited in such a way that viewers were left unclear on what or whom Trump was referring to, the suit claims.

"Absent the deceitful alteration of the audio, it is clear that 'this' does not refer to the coronavirus and instead refers directly to the Democrats' politicization of the pandemic," the campaign said. "WJFW-NBC has perpetrated a fraud on the public by recklessly broadcasting PUSA's defamatory and false advertisement."

The campaign points to numerous third-party outlets that scrutinized the ad or the claim that Trump called the coronavirus a hoax. The Washington Post gave the ad four Pinocchios, which is the newspaper's highest rating for false information, the campaign alleges. Snopes.com, which purports to be a fact-checking website, declared that Trump did not say that the coronavirus was a hoax, the campaign claims.

The ad began airing on WJFW-NBC in late March and the campaign sent a cease and desist letter to the station shortly thereafter, the campaign claims. Its letter included the documentation of the third-party fact-checkers who had scrutinized the ad, the campaign said.

A general manager responded to the campaign noting that the station was "consulting with legal," the campaign says. But the campaign says that it never heard back, and that the ad has continued to run on the station.

"A viewer of the PUSA ad as broadcast by WJFW-NBC would understand the false communication to state the position of the Trump Campaign, and it leads viewers to believe that the Trump Campaign's position is that the coronavirus pandemic is a 'hoax,'" the campaign alleges.

The campaign hits the station, which is owned by Northland Television LLC, with a common law defamation claim and seeks unspecified damages.

Northland is just the latest media company to face a suit from the campaign. In March, the campaign hit CNN with a libel suit in Georgia federal court claiming that an article on the media giant's website falsely alleged that the campaign considered seeking Russia's help in the 2020 election.

The campaign filed that suit just days after it sued the Washington Post for libel.

In February, it sued the New York Times in New York state court, claiming an opinion piece from last year that accused Trump's 2016 campaign of striking "an overarching deal" with Russia amounts to "intentional false reporting."

Representatives for the parties did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

The campaign is represented by Eric M. McLeod, Lane E. Ruhland, and Lisa M. Lawless of Husch Blackwell LLP.

Counsel information for the station was not immediately known Monday.

The case is Donald J. Trump For President Inc. v. Northland Television LLC, case number not immediately known, in the State of Wisconsin Circuit Court, Price County.

--Editing by Peter Rozovsky.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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