CNN's Jake Tapper at center of defamation lawsuit as he prepares to host presidential debate

The lawsuit and CNN’s defense -- that it produced opinion, not factual news -- may add fuel to the critics of the network which has long faced accusations of bias.

Published: June 23, 2024 10:14pm

Updated: June 25, 2024 2:06pm

CNN presidential debate moderator Jake Tapper’s show is at the center of a defamation suit brought by a consulting company which alleges that the network and one of its reporters lied about the company’s work.

The network’s defense: CNN did not intend to harm and its language was “opinion or ambiguous.”

Tapper is set to co-host the first presidential debate next Thursday which is being hosted by his network. The host has come under scrutiny from former President Donald Trump, who is set to participate in the debate, for his partiality— calling him “Fake [Jake] Tapper.”

But, as the well-known CNN personality gears up for that debate he also finds himself in the middle of a lawsuit against his employer by security consulting firm Nemex Enterprises and its owner Zachary Young, who worked to help evacuate Afghanis following the chaotic Taliban takeover of that country.

"Jake Tapper started his career working for a Democrat politician and he has never been able to shake the habit. Trying to run cover for Biden's disastrous pullout from Afghanistan, he and his CNN show slimed a hero who saved the lives of those Biden put in jeopardy. Now CNN is facing a billion dollar defamation suit at the same time Tapper will be moderating the presidential debate featuring the politician he lied for. Unreal," Dan Schneider, Vice President at conservative media watchdog Media Research Center, told Just the News in a statement. His organization reported that CNN has since deleted the TV segment under scrutiny from its website. 

The lawsuit and CNN’s defense is clearly adding fuel to the critics of the network which has faced accusations of bias. Trust in CNN has become one of the most polarizing datapoints when comparing the opinions of Democrats and Republicans, with a 96-point disparity in trust for “The Most Trusted Name in News,” according to a May 2024 YouGov poll. Americans’ overall trust in media has also declined, cratering to an all-time low last year, according to an October 2023 Gallup poll.

Even the outlet’s former Chairman and CEO, Chris Licht, acknowledged the network’s struggles last year. “The general sense was that you would not get a fair shake and you wouldn’t be allowed to make your point,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I don’t want CNN to be a place where you’re going to have such a combative experience that you go fundraise off of it. It is best for our audience to understand where everybody is coming from,” Licht reportedly said.

Licht abruptly departed CNN last year after he faced pushback on his efforts to urged a shift to more neutral news coverage and oversaw the firing of major hosts, including Don Lemon.

Earlier this month, a Florida Court of Appeals granted a win to Young and Nemex when it found there was “sufficient preliminary evidentiary showing of actual malice” in CNN’s coverage of their work in Afghanistan.

The court’s decision succinctly summarized the background of the case: “On November 11, 2021, CNN's ‘The Lead with Jake Tapper’ aired a video segment by reporter Alex Marquardt about Afghans attempting to flee the Taliban via private evacuation operators like Young. Over the next few days, Marquardt's reporting was republished on another CNN program, disseminated on Facebook and Twitter, and repackaged into a digital article on CNN's website.”

Young sued CNN for defamation and trade libel, arguing his reputation was damaged by the news station’s coverage. “Specifically, Young alleged CNN repeatedly accused him of operating in a ''black market" and mischaracterized his work as exploitative because he charged "exorbitant" fees Afghan citizens could not pay. Young claimed he was particularly harmed because he was the only private evacuator profiled in the reporting,” the decision reads.

The lawsuit showed internal communications from other CNN employees concerned that the story was “incomplete,” “a mess,” and not “fleshed out for digital.” Another criticism offered internally was that the “story is 80% emotion, 20% obscured fact,” according to the ruling.

CNN’s defended its publication of the article and TV segments by claiming in court papers that it “did not intend to harm,” that “its language was either opinion or ambiguous,” and “the internal communications were journalistic bravado that reflected a sincere belief in the reporting,” according to the appellate court's ruling.

You can read the ruling below: 

CNN did not immediately return a request for comment from Just the News

The finding from the court puts Tapper in an awkward position as he prepares to act as a neutral moderator in the upcoming debate. One of the candidates, Donald Trump, has already expressed concerns about fairness from the network, and specifically Tapper, as the debate approaches.

Other media outlets have made a similar "opinion" defense in the face of libel lawsuits. Media critics howled when after former Fox News host Tucker Carlson was accused of slander in federal court, Fox’s lawyers argued and a judge ruled “that given Mr. Carlson's reputation, any reasonable viewer 'arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism' about the statement he makes.” The judge ruled that Carlson's statements on air were “not actionable” because they represented exaggeration or opinion, and that that fact should be well known by his audience.

A year later, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow was sued for defamation by cable outlet One America News (OAN) after claiming it was a paid propaganda outlet for the Kremlin. MSNBC made the same argument as did Fox, and an Obama-appointed judge ruled that "Maddow’s show is different than a typical news segment where anchors inform viewers about the daily news," according to a Substack article published by Glenn Greenwald titled "A Court Ruled Rachel Maddow's Viewers Know She Offers Exaggeration and Opinion, Not Facts."

As for the upcoming debate, Trump appears to be warily optimistic. "Fake [Jake] Tapper and lots of other people that were involved on CNN, [the Biden campaign] wanted to be seated, which I didn't like. I said we should stand and I think we won that point," Trump said. "But I would have agreed to whatever I had agreed to because they didn't want to do it. They thought that I wouldn't do it because it's CNN, but I've done plenty of CNN. I did a town hall not so long ago with CNN that worked out well. But I think they’ll be fair. I think they’re gonna try to be fair. As fair as they can be,” Trump said during a podcast interview.

"But I think that it’s important for there to be a debate. So [the Biden campaign] said, ‘You want to debate?’ 'Yep, I'll accept. You don't even have to tell me.' Then they said CNN, they said the different people that are involved, but let's see what happens. I used to get along with [debate moderator] Jake Tapper. We'll see what happens, but it doesn't matter. Whatever it is, it is,” Trump added.

Unlock unlimited access

  • No Ads Within Stories
  • No Autoplay Videos
  • VIP access to exclusive Just the News newsmaker events hosted by John Solomon and his team.
  • Support the investigative reporting and honest news presentation you've come to enjoy from Just the News.
  • Just the News Spotlight

    Support Just the News