/ Articles / Trump campaign sues local TV station over ad

Trump campaign sues local TV station over ad

April 19, 2020 by Heather Schaefer

Rhinelander TV station WJFW-NBC 12 is facing a lawsuit alleging it repeatedly aired “a false and defamatory television advertisement” critical of President Donald Trump’s response to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. According to the complaint, filed Monday, April 13, in Price County Circuit Court, the station ran the advertisement 36 times over the course of 11 days despite receiving a cease and desist letter from the Trump campaign.

“This case concerns a false and defamatory television advertisement, produced by far-left Super PAC Priorities USA, that has been broadcast by defendant Northland Television, LLC, d/b/a WJFW-NBC, thereby causing material harm to Donald J. Trump’s principal campaign committee, Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. The advertisement, entitled ‘Exponential Threat,’ does not just contain false and defamatory statements about President Trump — it is far more insidious and, ultimately, far more dangerous,” the complaint states. “The advertisement was produced through the use of digital technology by taking audio clips from Trump Campaign events and piecing those clips together to manufacture a blatantly false statement that was never said by President Trump: ‘The coronavirus, this is their new hoax.’ 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. WJFW-NBC has perpetrated a fraud on the public by recklessly broadcasting PUSA’s defamatory and false advertisement, which WJFW-NBC knew or should have known was produced through the use of technology that depicted a clearly false statement.”

According to the Trump campaign’s cease and desist letter, which was included with the complaint, this is the full statement Trump made during a Feb. 28 campaign rally in South Carolina.

“Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus. You know that, right? Coronavirus. They’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs, you say, “How’s President Trump doing?”, “Oh, nothing, nothing.” They have no clue, they don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa, they can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes. One of my people came up to me and said, “Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.” That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything, they tried it over and over, they’ve been doing it since he got in. It’s all turning, they lost. It’s all turning, think of it, think of it. And this is their new hoax. But you know we did something that’s been pretty amazing. We have 15 people in this massive country and because of the fact that we went early, we went early, we could have had a lot more than that.”

According to the complaint, the lawsuit was filed in Price County “because the false and defamatory advertisement broadcast by WJFW-NBC was aired in Price County and, thus, the claims that are the subject of this Complaint arose in Price County.”

WJFW, which is based in Rhinelander, has 45 days to respond to the lawsuit. Price County Circuit Judge Kevin Klein, an appointee of former Gov. Scott Walker, will preside.

According to the complaint, the Trump campaign sent the cease and desist letter and “supporting research packet” related to the ad to WJFW-NBC on March 25.

The letter “clearly notified WJFW-NBC about the fake, deceptive, and fraudulent manner in which the PUSA advertisement was produced and the advertisement’s false and defamatory content,” the complaint states. “The Cease and Desist Letter further informed WJFW-NBC of the fact that multiple, independent, fact-checking organizations rightly concluded that the central point of the PUSA advertisement is clearly false. Despite this overwhelming evidence, WJFW-NBC continued to broadcast the PUSA ad, airing it thirty-six (36) more times over the next eleven (11) days. Thus, WJFW-NBC continued to broadcast the PUSA advertisement with actual knowledge that the advertisement contained verifiably false information and, therefore, perpetuated a fraud on the public and/or acted with reckless disregard for the advertisement’s truth.”

According to the complaint, “as a licensed broadcast TV station, under the Communications Act of 1934, WJFW-NBC has an obligation to operate in the public interest. Within this obligation, WJFW-NBC has a responsibility to protect the public from false, misleading, and deceptive advertising.”

“Unlike the qualified campaign committees of candidates for public office, third parties such as PUSA have no right under the Communications Act to command the use of broadcast facilities to air their advertisements,” the complaint continues. “That is, WJFW-NBC may refuse to air the advertising of third parties such as PUSA and it may censor such ads. As a licensed broadcast TV station, WJFW-NBC has the authority — indeed, the obligation — to ensure that advertisements such as the PUSA advertisement are not false, misleading, or deceptive. WJFW-NBC is subject to liability under the law for false and defamatory statements within advertising aired by persons other than candidates’ campaign committees, such as the PUSA advertisement.”

The complaint lists checkyourfact.com, snopes.com, politifact.com and the Washington Post as among the “multiple independent fact-checking organizations” that have “debunked and proved false the core statements of the PUSA ad.”

Guy Cecil, chairman of Priorities USA, released this statement in response to the lawsuit.

“This is pretty simple. Donald Trump doesn’t want voters to hear the truth and he’s trying to bully TV stations into submission. The truth is that Trump ignored warnings from experts and his own team and downplayed the coronavirus even as it spread unchecked across the country and the world. Americans are now suffering as a result of his inaction. We will never stop airing the facts and holding the president accountable for his actions.”

The lawsuit requests a judgment for damages in an amount to be determined at trial as well as costs, disbursements and attorneys’ fees. 

WJFW’s general manager Steve Shanks did not respond to a request for comment on the lawsuit. However, anchor Justin Betti read this statement during the station’s Monday evening newscast.

“Our station neither endorses nor opposes this ad nor any other campaign ad that airs on our station. This is not our role. We continue to try to provide you the most accurate news possible during our newscasts. To this day, by the way, that ad continues to be aired on many TV stations across the country. However, WJFW is the only station named in this suit and that suit still has not been served. We’ve only heard about it and read about it through other news organizations and on the president’s campaign website.”

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