RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC/AP) — Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax filed a defamation lawsuit against CBS on Thursday claiming the network’s interviews with the two women accusing Fairfax of sexual assault inflicted emotional distress on the lieutenant governor and his family and “promoted false statements.”
The lawsuit is asking for $400 million in damages.
The lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday alleges nobody at the company investigated or adequately fact-checked the allegations made by Meredith Watson or Vanessa Tyson before airing them. It says CBS’ actions have damaged Fairfax’s reputation and “once promising career and political prospects.”
“Fairfax brings this action to restore his reputation and clear his name, ensure the truth prevails, stop the weaponization of false allegations of sexual assault against him, and vindicate his rights under civil law,” the lawsuit says.
Following the release of the lawsuit, WAVY sister station WRIC 8News reached out to CBS and the attorneys for both Tyson and Watson.
“We stand by our reporting and we will vigorously defend this lawsuit,” a CBS News spokesperson told 8News.
“We look forward to everyone testifying under oath, now that this matter is in court,” Nancy Erika Smith, Watson’s attorney, said Thursday.
Fairfax, previously considered a rising star of the state Democratic Party, has faced calls to step down from his part-time government job. This summer, he resigned from the law firm where he had worked.
Tyson says Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex in 2004. Watson says Fairfax raped her in 2000 when both were students at Duke University.
Fairfax has adamantly denied their allegations, saying the encounters were consensual and that the women’s actions were politically motived.
Tyson and Watson’s allegations came to light at a moment when Fairfax seemed poised to ascend to the governorship. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was facing a crisis after a racist photo showing a person in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan costume was found on his medical school yearbook page.
The lawsuit says CBS amplified the women’s “intentionally fabricated, false, and politically-motivated statements” without thoroughly investigating. It also alleges that a CBS attorney who was a Duke classmate of Watson and Fairfax “had information all along that Fairfax did not rape or sexually assault Watson.”
An attorney for Watson said in a statement, “We look forward to everyone testifying under oath, now that this matter is in court.”
The lawyers for Dr. Tyson, Debra Katz and Lisa Banks, shared a full statement with 8News on Thursday with the title: “Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax’s $400 Million Lawsuit Against CBS Is Just Another Ploy to Try to Preserve His Political Career and to Smear Victims of Sexual Assault”
Our client, Dr. Vanessa Tyson, stands by the statements she made during her interview with Gayle King on CBS This Morning’s April 1, 2019, broadcast detailing Lt. Governor Fairfax’s sexual assault of her in 2004. In his $400 million lawsuit against CBS, Mr. Fairfax repeats baseless allegations about Dr. Tyson in a transparent effort to discredit her for his own political advantage. He has rehashed once again the same discredited allegations, including suggesting that The Washington Post did not run Dr. Tyson’s account in early 2018 because it did not believe her. This falsehood led Martin Baron, the Editor of The Washington Post, to take the unusual step of personally and publicly correcting Mr. Fairfax. This lawsuit appears to be yet another desperate stunt by Mr. Fairfax to preserve his political career at the expense of survivors of sexual assault.DEBRA S. KATZ AND LISA J. BANKS, ATTORNEYS FOR DR. VANESSA TYSON
Mr. Fairfax’s suggestion that Dr. Tyson came forward – at great personal risk – to detail her harrowing account of forced oral sex as part of a political conspiracy to prevent him from being Governor of Virginia is ludicrous. As we have said previously, threats, bullying and victim-blaming by Mr. Fairfax will not deter Dr. Tyson from speaking up, and she looks forward to testifying under oath to the Virginia General Assembly about Mr. Fairfax’s sexual assault of her.”
Fairfax’s lawsuit suggests CBS was trying to “align itself on the side of perceived victims” because of sexual misconduct allegations against several high-profile CBS employees, including former CEO Leslie Moonves, who was ousted last September.
“In light of its need to improve its public image and put these incidents in its rearview mirror by currying favor as a media outlet for accusations against public figures, the network sought to visibly align itself with alleged victims of sexual misconduct and, therefore, had a strong incentive to hype and air the false allegations by Watson and Tyson against Fairfax,” the lawsuit says.
CBS’ actions have damaged Fairfax’s “extraordinarily successful” career in law and public service, the lawsuit claims. It says he had “little choice” but to resign from a partnership at a private law firm where he would have earned “millions of dollars” over the years.
As lieutenant governor, Fairfax presides over the state Senate in a part-time role that pays around $36,000 a year.
Fairfax’s wife and young children have also suffered “emotional trauma, public ridicule, threats to their safety, and invasions of privacy,” the lawsuit says.
A spokesperson for Mr. Fairfax provided a statement with 8News on Thursday regarding the lawsuit. Below is the full statement:
With the filing of today’s lawsuit against CBS for $400 million dollars, Virginia’s Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax (in his individual capacity) is calling to account a major corporation that the complaint alleges sought to exploit false allegations of sexual misconduct to repair its public image and boost its bottom line.
As alleged in the complaint, CBS had access to information indicating that the suspiciously-timed accusations made against Fairfax were false, but thought attempting to burnish its #MeToo credentials in light of recent, high-profile sexual assault and harassment accusations against key figures at CBS was more important than the truth. Fairfax filed this lawsuit so that he can fight these allegations in a court of law, with the protections of due process, and on a level playing field.
The complaint describes how Meredith Watson told a brazen and fabricated story of a college rape and sexual assault that never occurred. It also alleges how Dr. Vanessa Tyson’s allegation of sexual assault based on a 15-year-old completely consensual encounter is false, uncorroborated, and politically-motivated. Both allegations were made public at the precise moment that Fairfax appeared poised to become the only African American Governor in the United States of America. Yet, the complaint alleges that CBS decided to air these allegations in hyped exclusive interviews to millions of people without first performing an adequate investigation to determine whether the allegations were, in fact, true.
The complaint describes how Gayle King promoted their stories to a nationwide audience of millions on CBS This Morning. The complaint further alleges that CBS This Morning hosts asserted on-air as fact circumstances about which they had no knowledge and had done no independent investigation. The complaint also alleges that an attorney in CBS’s own legal department had information prior to the airing of her interview that demonstrated the false nature of Meredith Watson’s allegation. Watson did not acknowledge, and King did not ask on-air about, the fact that there is an eyewitness to the 19-year-old encounter who has completely contradicted Watson’s version of what occurred. The reporter and producers of the CBS This Morning segment had been provided leads that should have caused any responsible journalist to ask key questions before airing interviews that were highly injurious to someone falsely accused. Yet, CBS still aired, and continues to publish uncorrected, Watson’s false allegation. Likewise, the complaint alleges that CBS failed to adequately investigate the validity of Tysons’ allegation and deliberately chose not to do so before rushing her story to the airwaves.
CBS must be held accountable for its reckless disregard for the truth, knowing failure to follow even rudimentary journalistic standards, and its failure to follow up on leads that would demonstrate the allegations to be false. Fairfax has made numerous direct requests to CBS to update, correct or retract the false stories it hyped repeatedly, broadcast, and kept in circulation via its website and social media presence. CBS’ failure to do so, and its failure to acknowledge its role in spreading scurrilous false information, has led to today’s lawsuit. As the complaint filed today details, there is compelling evidence that the allegations aired by CBS involving Lt. Governor Fairfax are false, defamatory and politically-motivated. CBS had, and has, a significant civic responsibility not to publish false and uncorroborated stories, particularly ones that do severe damage to people’s lives and reputations, their family’s life, and to the public’s trust in media reporting. No one should have their reputation and years of hard work destroyed because of false and unsubstantiated claims.
When the allegations against Fairfax were made, even though he knew them to be false, Fairfax wanted them to be heard and evaluated by professional investigators. Fairfax called for fairness and due process in the form of an independent investigation of the allegations and the peculiar timing of when they came forward just prior to his inauguration and just prior to the potential resignation of Virginia’s Governor and Fairfax’s potential succession to the governorship.
Not only did Fairfax voluntarily take and pass two separate polygraph tests with regard to each of the allegations, but he also sent detailed letters to prosecutors in Boston and Durham encouraging them to open criminal investigations into his conduct and that of his accusers. Guilty people do not invite criminal investigations. But Fairfax welcomed such investigations knowing they would demonstrate that the allegations against him are completely false.
As alleged in the complaint, the utterly irresponsible journalism of CBS took the false allegations to an entirely different level by broadcasting them to a national audience and republishing them to millions of people.
The media must act responsibly when facts are uncovered that reveal the full truth of a situation, especially in the era of the #MeToo Movement. Responsible journalism should not be clouded and reduced to clickbait and likes on social media. Responsible journalism must involve basic fairness followed by fact-checking and deliberate investigation. Fairfax trusts that the court system will provide him the due process and fundamental fairness that CBS, and many others, have denied him. — Statement on behalf of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax