An attorney for the National Center for Public Policy Research, speaking yesterday at Comcast's annual shareholder meeting, demanded an on-air correction and apology for defamatory claims by MSNBC's Rachel Maddow.
National Center general counsel Justin Danhof directed his statement to Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast, majority owner of NBCUniversal, which in turn owns MSNBC. In his remarks, Danhof hinted at legal action if Comcast fails to comply. (video after page break)
According to a press release issued today by the center, Maddow "accused the organization I am representing and by extension its longtime CEO, the shareholder I represent today, of 'funnel[ing] cash and perks ... to Members of Congress' to affect their position on legislation. If true, which it absolutely is not, this would constitute bribery, a fact about which your network is aware, as the word 'bribe' was used by Maddow in her segment. I am not here today to ask you to comment on this specific matter, as it may be subject to litigation, but to ask about the fact-checking processes the company has in place to reduce the exposure of its shareholders to libel claims."
The Maddow segment aired April 23 (embedded in its entirety above) and focused mainly on the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling scandal. Four days earlier, lobbyist Tony Rudy became the last of 21 people sentenced in the scandal for accepting donations while he was a congressional staffer and later doling out gifts to public officials after he became a lobbyist, "all in exchange for legislative favors," according to an AP story on Rudy's sentencing.
Rudy helped organize an all-expenses paid trip in 2002 to St. Andrews Golf Club in Scotland for Abramoff, former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, GSA official David Safavian and GOP Congressman Bob Ney of Ohio, who resigned from Congress four years later and was convicted on charges of conspiracy and making false statements stemming from the Abramoff investigation.
"When Congressman Bob Ney got home from that golf trip," Maddow said April 23, "he said that the whole thing had been paid for by a group called the National Center for Public Policy (sic). That group denied paying for the Scotland trip at the time, but they were hip deep in the Abramoff scandal."
"Hip deep?" Maddow elaborated on this dubious characterization. Before Tony Rudy worked for Abramoff, she said, he was a staffer for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay in the mid-1990s and accompanied DeLay and Abramoff on a six-day trip to Russia. "Again, all expenses were paid," Maddow said, "and again, like Bob Ney, Tom DeLay claimed the whole thing was paid for and organized by this obscure, forgettable Washington, D.C., non-profit called the National Center for Public Policy Research."
It's here that Maddow's remarks cross the line from inaccuracy to defamation, according to the center. "This organization, it turns out, funded all sorts of Jack Abramoff-related activities," she said. "Remember, Abramoff's goal was to serve his corporate clients by essentially using corporate money to bribe members of Congress to support legislation that favored whatever corporation had hired him. And this group, the National Center for Public Policy Research, was essentially one of the ways that Abramoff funneled money or perks to various members of Congress."
"So Jack Abramoff would have his client, the Choctaw Indians, for example, donate tens of thousands of dollars to this obscure, forgettable group, this National Center for Public Policy Research, and then that group would bankroll an all-expenses-paid trip to Scotland for Tom DeLay!" Maddow said. "That six-day trip to Russia that Tom DeLay said was paid for by the National Center for Public Policy Research? It actually appears to have been paid for with money that was given to that group by Abramoff's Russian oil clients."
The center's chairman, Amy Ridenour, denied Maddow's claims and described MSNBC's "editorializing" as "frequently outlandish." (Disclosure: Ridenour is a contributing writer to NewsBusters).
"But there is a difference between an over-the-top editorial and a harmful lie expressed with reckless disregard for the truth," stated Ridenour, a Comcast shareholder. "I have had check-signing authority at the National Center for our entire 30-year history, and I would know if we had ever once given cash to a member of Congress, and we haven't. We don't even make campaign contributions, and we don't hand out perks to anybody to affect legislation, and never have. We've only sponsored congressional travel for one member of Congress in 30 years," trips by DeLay in 1996 and 2000.
"Rachel Maddow's allegations are false, and I believe the network knew it had no evidence for them, yet broadcast them anyway," Ridenour stated further. "MSNBC has to know that credible bribery allegations against members of Congress get investigated by the Department of Justice, yet Rachel Maddow claimed we were -- apparently routinely -- bribing congressmen for about 10 years starting in the mid-1990s. Why were no congressmen charged, let alone convicted? Why wasn't I charged, as the sole CEO during that time? The answer is that there was nothing to charge: MSNBC made it up."
In his challenge to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, the center's general counsel Justin Danhof pointed out other "potential libel" on MSNBC -- "On March 23 and April 9, for example, your network falsely claimed the Koch brothers were connected to Trayvon Martin's death, and apparently you have refused to run a correction, even though unwarranted media attacks on the Kochs have resulted in death threats against individuals at their company. ... Chris Matthews said Republican primary voters are comparable to Grand Wizards of the Ku Klux Klan, then claimed he didn't mean to say it. Ed Schultz called Laura Ingraham a slut. Then, he apologized. But he has also claimed that Republicans want to see sick people die so they can make money off their corpses; that conservative commentators want to see Cheney shot; and he said of former Vice President Dick Cheney's heart, 'We ought to rip it out, kick it around, and stuff it back in him.' "
"Are MSNBC personnel unable to govern their own speech?" Danhof asked. "Or is all this outlandish talk just a formal company tactic designed to boost your ratings? And what, if anything, does Comcast do to prevent libel exposure?"
Roberts said he was not familiar with the Maddow broadcast in question, according to the center's press release. "But I will tell you that we will look into it and we will get back to you," Roberts added. "Thank you for your comments."
Maddow is already embroiled in a defamation lawsuit brought by Christian evangelical rocker and radio host Bradlee Dean for alleging that he advocates execution of gays.
The National Center for Public Policy Research describes itself as a "conservative, free-market, non-profit think-tank" created in 1982 and supported by "voluntary gifts from over 100,000 individual recent supporters" and two percent of its revenue from corporate sources.