Lawyers for MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (inset) will have to deal with arguments by UC Santa Barbara linguistics professor  Stefan Gries (left) that she indeed was taken literally by viewers in labeling One America News as Russian propaganda.
Lawyers for MSNBC host Rachel Maddow (inset) will have to deal with arguments by UC Santa Barbara linguistics professor Stefan Gries (left) that she indeed was taken literally by viewers in labeling One America News as Russian propaganda. Images via and Twitter

If Rachel Maddow loses her $10 million defamation case brought by the owner of San Diego-based One America News Network, she can blame, in part, a UC Santa Barbara linguistics professor.

The professor, Stefan Thomas Gries, argues in a long analysis of Maddow’s on-air speech patterns that when she says “literally,” she means “in fact.”

Judge Cynthia Bashant in downtown San Diego federal court will hear both sides Dec. 16 in a hearing on an anti-SLAPP motion.

Herring Networks' response to Rachel Maddow anti-SLAPP motion.
Herring Networks’ response to Rachel Maddow anti-SLAPP motion. (PDF)

Lawyers for the MSNBC host said in that Oct. 21 motion that Bashant should throw out the suit by Herring Networks because Maddow was merely using hyperbole — and expressing her own opinion — when she said: OAN “really literally is paid Russian propaganda.”

Lawyers for Maddow’s employers, including Comcast, said OAN didn’t dispute that for more than four years Kristian Brunovich Rouz wrote about 1,300 articles for the Russian news agency Sputnik and that “Sputnik News is affiliated with the Russian government.”

Maddow lawyer Theodore J. “Ted” Boutrous Jr. argued that the liberal host was clearly offering up her “own unique expression” of her views to capture what she saw as the “ridiculous” nature of the undisputed facts.

“Her comment, therefore, is a quintessential statement ‘of rhetorical hyperbole, incapable of being proved true or false,’” he said.

The anti-SLAPP statute allows targets of certain lawsuits to ask a court to dismiss a complaint when it involves the rights of petition and free speech. (SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.”)

But UCSB professor Gries, retained by Herring as an expert witness, says he reviewed the July 22, 2019, segment in question and concludes “it is very unlikely that an average or reasonable/ordinary viewer would consider the sentence in question to be a statement of opinion.”

West German-born Gries, who also speaks Russian and German, said in a legal filing Monday that, according to Google Scholar, “I am the second most widely-cited cognitive linguist and sixth most widely-cited living corpus linguist. The field of cognitive linguistics draws from both linguistics and psychology and studies how language interacts with cognition.”

In a response totaling 93 pages, Herring lawyer Amnon Siegel says Gries conducted a thorough analysis of Maddow’s segment, “identifying and analyzing linguistic markers (including words, tone, and cadence) used by Maddow.”

“Maddow did not use any typical opinion-markers when she stated that OAN ‘really literally is paid Russian propaganda,’” he said.

Siegel said Maddow is not the sort of person an audience would expect to misuse “literally.”

“She is a graduate of Stanford and Oxford Universities and a Rhodes Scholar,” he said. “In fact, on the show, Maddow regularly uses ‘literally’ in its primary meaning,” as she did in these examples:

  • “Meanwhile, today the Trump administration tried to push through one of the most controversial judicial nominees of Trump’s time in office. They literally nominated him to the job two days ago.”
  • “It’s literally an emergency, a formally declared emergency.”
  • The U.S. military [is] apparently diverting C17 cargo flights to stop at President Trump’s golf course in Scotland, literally to have U.S. airmen stay at his golf resort.”
  • And: “They are literally de-funding the day care center at Andrews Air Force Base.”

Thus Maddow’s use of “literally” is consistent, he said, and “her audience would not have understood her assertion that OAN ‘really literally is paid Russian propaganda’ as metaphorical hyperbole.”

Contacted Tuesday, Gries couldn’t respond to questions about his expert-witness record at trial and other issues, saying: “I’m sorry I can’t be more forthcoming at this time.”

In a declaration attached to the response, Herring Networks president Charles Herring says that prior to The Daily Beast article that Maddow cited in her segment, “Herring Networks did not know that Rouz also wrote articles for Sputnik News.”

“Neither Maddow nor anyone from Comcast Corporation, NBCUniversal Media, LLC, or MNSBC Cable LLC contacted OAN or Herring Networks prior to televising the segment,” Herring added in an apparent attempt to show Maddow didn’t care to check on the accuracy of her statement. (A “reckless disregard” for the truth is a factor in libel actions.)

Herring further declared: “Neither OAN nor Herring Networks has ever received money from Russia or the Russian government, and none of OAN’s content is influenced by Russians or the Russian government. In fact, Herring Networks is exclusively financed by the Herring Family and has never received outside investment.”

Siegel, one of four Miller Barondess attorneys for Herring, supplied nearly three dozen federal and state court citations and statutes to prove his case.

Among them: Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary definitions of “really” and “literally.”

Updated at 3:42 p.m. Dec. 3, 2019