Charles “Chuck” Johnson, pseudojournalist and (deserved) punching bag du jour, has gained increasing notoriety in the last several days thanks to his self-insertion into the Rolling Stone “Jackie” affair. Johnson was previously known for falling for bad satire involving a New York Times reporter and Playgirl, screwing up Cory Booker’s residency in a piece about his residency, and publishing the addresses of New York Times reporters to show that publishing addresses is wrong and bad, and publishing the name and address of an Ebola victim. He’s trot forth his familiar one-trick pony: a social media profile published (more or less) with reckless abandon and even less care for its relevance. In this familiar refrain, Johnson is Reddit personified: equal parts stream-of-consciousness reporting, crowdsourced-rush-to-judgment, and noxious entitlement.
His latest foray has been widely ridiculed — and for good reason: even if you disbelieve the allegations of “Jackie” set forth in a trainwreck of an excuse for journalism, it’s off-setting to watch Johnson’s giddy dumpster-dive into Jackie’s social media, as he rises with “BREAKING” news of whichever post he found the previous hour, devoid of context and, often, relevance. 1
So, with irony lost on nobody but Chuck, Gawker’s Deadspin published its own findings from Johnson’s unsecured Facebook profile, wherein he instructed his “resentful” former classmates that they needed to stop contacting him in his newfound days of “notoriety and success.” Johnson responded to an email from Deadspin offering that “the comments about me shitting on the floor were made up.” This tale — that Johnson allegedly defecated on the floor of a dormitory in undergrad — is apparently an old joke tossed about by his detractors at Claremont-McKenna. For what it’s worth, I doubt it’s true.
Deadspin, grasping the irony beyond Johnson’s reach, channeled Johnson’s finesse for speculating wildly from a misinterpretation and satirically asked whether the rather obvious joke was true:
I’d be inclined to believe the guy, or at least give him the benefit of the doubt. But he’s been caught lying many times before, and in the wake of Rolling Stone deputy editor Sean Woods tendering his resignation today, it’s more important than ever to fact check. And so I ask you, dearest readers: Did Chuck Johnson really shit on the floor in college? Please send context, stories, and photos to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Johnson exploded, demanding a retraction on pain of a lawsuit for
defecation defamation of character, and speculating that he may crowdsource funding for his legal efforts (which he’s tried before.)
— Charles C. Johnson (@ChuckCJohnson) December 10, 2014
If the past is any indication — and if Johnson gets remotely competent legal advice — this will never, ever happen.
Even assuming some factual statement could be divined in the Deadspin post, Johnson is almost certainly a public figure — the message he posted to his ex-classmates recounts his “notoriety and success,” his Twitter feed is a minefield of bravado about how the media hates him, and his greatest skillset is in drawing attention to himself. This means that Johnson would have to show that Deadspin either knew it was false or seriously doubted the veracity of its statements and said “screw it, who cares?” And he’d have to show it with “clear and convincing” evidence — a burden higher than your normal “well, I suppose he probably did it” burden of preponderance. If brought in California, the suit would likely face certain doom at the hands of California’s anti-SLAPP statute, and Johnson would be on the hook for Deadspin’s legal fees.
I emailed Johnson asking about whether he intended to proceed with a suit against Deadspin. His brief response was less than committal and somehow still gets the facts wrong: 2
Deadspin has used an anonymous comment on my website about an event that didn’t happen. They need to correct the record. I have talked with my lawyers.
Second: nineteenth verse, same as the first eighteen bloody verses. Chuck Johnson’s penchant for characterizing even mild criticism as defamatory or issuing fatwas declaring imminent legal action borders on addiction.
A survey of his threats or characterizations, a minority of which are potentially colorable, but the balance decidedly not:
1. An implied threat to sue a Vice President of his college because Israel? Sure. “I would like you to no longer libel or slander me and that I am well aware of what those terms mean, as I have talked to counsel about it.” It’s unclear (from my vantage point, anyway) what the defamatory comments were, which is sure to apprise his critics not to repeat them.
2. Promising to sue Sam Hall, a reporter for the Jackson, Mississippi Clarion-Ledger for presenting evidence that Johnson was using photographs without proper attribution and/or permission. Johnson claimed he got the photos from “sources within Mississippi” and would have been happy to have paid for them if the photographers had contacted him. Johnson said he was calling his lawyers, would be “filing suit,” and was sending a list of factual errors and an “open letter” “through my attorney.” Johnson refused to answer questions, because the reporter would be answering his questions “in deposition.” Reached by Talking Points Memo, Johnson averred that he was considering suing unnamed others at the Clarion-Ledger, as well.
No suit against Sam Hall or the Clarion-Ledger was apparently filed. Johnson implied he didn’t file suit because a correction was issued. That correction, however, only noted that Johnson gave proper attribution in one of the three photos and, in any event, Johnson had said a correction “isn’t good enough” because his beef was with the use of the word “steals” in the headline — a word that remains unchanged.
3. Promising that he “will sue u” for stating that he is a “sleaze who dances on the graves of beheaded american journos” after Johnson criticized James Foley — in the hours after ISIS unveiled video on his beheading — for his final (compelled) words condemning the U.S. government.
4. Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood. I don’t fucking know. Something about paying a source as opposed to paying for the source’s text messages? In any event, the Attorney General states that they have not “been able to find” a criminal violation in the affair. Whether he paid a source or for material from the source likely doesn’t make much difference, Moreover, Hood notes that they’re not sure who paid the source, just that the source “admitted he got paid $10,000 to lie.” Perhaps there could be a colorable claim for defamation, but it’s unlikely.
5. A Vanity Fair writer calling him “mentally unstable” is “libel” (but, given the context of barbs traded in online arguments, this statement is likely hyperbole, opinion, or, as a matter of law, substantially true, given his antics and callous disregard for the subjects of his writing.)
6. A reporter unable to corroborate (and asking questions about) Johnson’s report that a police officer in Ferguson “had his ankle broken in 2 place by brick hurled by rioters” means the reporter “lied and said that I’m making stuff up. That’s libelous.”
7. Demanding the National Republican Senatorial Committee apologize “in private” for “slandering” him to “several” unnamed outlets, threatening to reveal the names of the publications and who talked to them.
8. Threatening Charles Johnson (the other blogger named Charles Johnson 3) for… I don’t really know. There’s apparently enough that Chuck Johnson is collecting a list of the “most libelous tweets and writings” of Charles Johnson about Chuck Johnson for Chuck Johnson’s lawyers to review. Calling him a “sociopath” is “defamation,” so that’s one of them. So is “inventing more bullshit stories about Ferguson for attention.” So is calling him a “creepy stalker,” that he “is a straight up white supremacist” because he “retweets supremacists and links to supremacist sites” and that, in reference to his Ferguson reporting, he’s “trying to get people killed, and pretending that he’s concerned about public safety.” These are all either hyperbolic, figurative, or opinion based on disclosed facts — which can’t be defamatory if the facts are, themselves, true (and I don’t know one way or the other whether they are.) [Updated 12/10, 2:20 PM.]
9. Hunter Walker of Business Insider apparently writes “libelous hit pieces against” Johnson. Again, not really clear what the piece was or what, exactly, was “libelous” about it.
10. The Daily Beast “libeled” Johnson by calling him a “gun nut” in a critique of his criticism of whether particular incidents can be classified as school shootings (“another fake school shooting”.) Johnson apparently called the author, again said she “libeled” him, and reported that a correspondent “wants to fight me or something[.]” Yeah, I don’t know, either.
11. “Fucking tool” is okay, but “stalker” is not. If you say that “falsely,” he’ll “take you to court.”
12. Esquire magazine “libels” him for calling him a “stalker of elderly dementia patients” (but not “Internet hack”?), presumably referring to Johnson’s offer of reward money for controversial photographs taken inside the nursing home of a candidate’s relative. Assuming I’m not missing something here and Esquire was confusing Johnson for another blogger, this could be defamatory, as the conduct of the blogger relating to the photographs was reprehensible. Then again, offering to pay for those same photographs after the fact? Perhaps creepy enough to bring this into the “substantial truth” column.
13. Calling him a “demented troll” is “defamatory.” (Figurative speech is not actionable. He’s not literally collecting money under bridges. But that might be a more profitable venture than selling his “gotnews.com” domain name.)
14. Calling his work “conspiracy drivel” is “absurd and libelous.” (Clearly opinion.)
15. “Racist” is right out of the question. (No.)
16. It’s a “libelous claim” to say “you also lie or embellish a lot.”
17. Claiming that “people … make things up to libel me” with respect to his opinion about whether international students at his undergraduate institution are “inferior” to American students due to their relatively low SAT scores.
19. Calling him “crazy” goes on the “libel watch.” [Updated 12/10, 2:20 PM PST. PDT?]
20. [Update]: In the two hours since I wrote this, Johnson has now claimed that this piece “is libel” when it states that he writes about some of his subjects (e.g., decedents in police shootings) “with the deliberate goal of discrediting the victims.” This is classic opinion, not libel.
21. [Update 12/11]: Johnson is said to pursue what the Daily Caller characterizes as a “jihad” of libel lawsuits. With the addition to some of those listed above, he’s also targeting Rosie Gray of Buzzfeed, presumably for this article.
Some of these are not threats to file a lawsuit. Characterizing criticism as libelous may itself be hyperbolic, and few can be blamed for a one-off invocation of defamation law in the face of caustic criticism. But a journalist should be held to a higher standard. An accusation that e a journalist has not only made an error, but made one so grave that its harm and the fault that birthed it justify curbing free speech, is one that should not be made lightly. A self-proclaimed journalist should know better. And shouldn’t Johnson, with a habit of often getting things wrong, be the last to bandy about the “libelslander!” charge?
Further, Johnson has intoned ominously that “I am well aware of what those terms [libel and slander] mean, as I have talked to counsel about [them].” As Johnson himself once noted, “accusations of slander and libel […] impugn my character as a student journalist. […] Such carelessly cast accusations are professionally damaging[.]” Of course, two days later, he claimed that accusations that he had defamed anyone were, themselves, defamatory.
So how many defamation lawsuits has Johnson filed? Based on a search of PACER and the Los Angeles Superior Court, none. Johnson declined to answer my question about whether he’s a party to any defamation action (although he is reportedly a defendant in one ill-considered defamation suit), and I’m not about to spend days combing through every “Chuck Johnson” lawsuit in the land. (If he had filed one, what are the odds he wouldn’t tell everyone?)
When I emailed Johnson seeking his comment on (much of) the foregoing skirmishes, and asking him how his latest iteration of legal threats can be taken seriously in light of his track record, he declined to address my questions, providing only the statement recited above.
So, Deadspin, save your money: even if Johnson sues, he’ll probably sue the wrong defendant.
- Johnson’s great discovery was that “Jackie” had ‘pinned’ posts about being a rape survivor, which Johnson essentially identified as indicia that she’s a lying slut while pointing to Virginia’s criminal defamation statute. Johnson pointed to one photo in particular, of “Jackie” holding a sign. Of course, there was no indication that the posts were made before the alleged assault, and of course a survivor of rape might express herself in this way. Oh, and it wasn’t her in the photo. Oops. So he updated the headline to read that she had “retweeted” the photo, which would be accurate if this were Twitter. It’s Pinterest. ↩
- First, it wasn’t on his website, unless Facebook is his website — and if that’s true, Deadspin had better watch out because this guy can afford a team of ten lawyers full-time. Second, “I have talked with my lawyers” doesn’t even recite whether he’s talked to a lawyer about this. But I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one. ↩
- If Chuck Johnson v. Charles Johnson is ever filed, I will intervene and ask the judge to force one of them to change their names. ↩