Former Young Turks reporter Jordan Chariton filed a defamation and libel lawsuit against Huffington Post and its owner, Oath, over a contributor posting that publicized sexual allegations against him.
The post was taken down by editors but not immediately removed from Google’s indexing for news websites. It ultimately led to the Young Turks firing Chariton on November 17.
The lawsuit [PDF] argues Huffington Post and Oath were “active participants” and “co-conspirators in the libel.”
“HuffPost Contributor articles do not get indexed and show up in Google search engines until an editor at HuffPost ‘approves it’ and decides to ‘promote’ it,” the lawsuit contends. “The article in question was indexed to Google not once, not twice, but three times over—on Google’s regular page, on Google’s mobile site, and on Google’s news—after the promoting editor took overt acts to enter each listing on Google.”
It also asserts that Huffington Post has a “registration and approval process” for becoming a “HuffPost Contributor.” Everyone who applies is not approved, and a person “cannot go online right now and become a HuffPost contributor. This establishes that being a branded ‘HuffPost Contributor’ is a selective process.”
The post was removed one day after it was published. Huffington Post did not issue a retraction, even though representatives of Chariton made a request on November 20. They were also asked to “delist its Google indexing of the story” yet Oath General Counsel Jeff Grossman declined these requests a day later.
Bill Moran, an attorney for Chariton, told Shadowproof that Huffington Post will likely argue “their content is covered under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1995, which cover folks like Reddit or Twitter [users]. If someone says something horrible on Twitter, it’s not attributable to Twitter.” But Moran insists Huffington Post isn’t covered by the law in this instance.
“This was on their contributor platform, and they mark their contributors as HuffPost Contributors, which is extremely deceptive because people don’t know whether this is a HuffPost employee or just some random person posting on the internet. They also have a selective process in determining who can become a contributor,” Moran noted.
Moran added, “It is an open secret that HuffPost does not index their stories until they are ‘promoted’ by an editor. A large sum, perhaps the majority, of HuffPost articles are never indexed or [they are] marked ‘noindex/nofollow’ in the metadata. Here, the story was not only marked for indexing to appear on Google within hours of it being published but was marked as news effectively dressing a hoax up in the clothing of journalism.”
According to the lawsuit, “For two weeks after publication, the top result when you searched the name ‘Jordan Chariton’ [on Google] was ‘Jordan Chariton Accused by Former Employees of Sexual Abuse, Harassment’ and a second link with an image of him in the header ‘Top Stories for Jordan Chariton’ carrying the story title with ‘Huffington Post’ emblazoned below it.”
The author of the post, Christian Chiakulas, reported Chariton allegedly raped Carly Hammond, an employee of his Truth Against the Machine project, in a hotel room in Flint, Michigan. Chiakulas neglected to include accounts from two individuals in the room, Chelsea Lyons and Ty Bayliss, who disagree with the allegation that Hammond was raped.
Chiakulas told Shadowproof in an email on November 22, “I have heard rumors of at least six accusers of sexual abuse/harassment/assault from different sources. I do not know their names and am not sure how credible the information is.” Yet, the headline of the post represented these “rumors” as fact—that there were “multiple accusers” when only one person was named.
Later, on December 5, Chiakulas appeared on a show hosted by H.A. Goodman and said there was only one accuser.
Moran does not view the lawsuit as some kind of attack on platforms that offer open access for contributors. He argued Huffington Post contributors are different from users of open platforms, like Medium. He said the Communications Decency Act was not meant to cover the post that was published.
“If you start having stories that aren’t really news or journalism showing up and being presented as news, that’s troubling,” Moran argued.
Moran further contended, “HuffPost fundamentally altered the nature of the initial publication.” By indexing it to Google News, it was “libel by implication” because the outlet made it seem the “accusations” had “come forward as part of a proper journalistic process, that there was some sort of proper vetting process.”
According to Moran, Huffington Post and Oath told Chariton to complain to Google. But it was Huffington Post that published initial story, created the links and indexing, and had the ability to de-index it so the allegations, which it had taken down from their website, would no longer be accessed.
Chariton seeks a jury trial and $20 million in punitive damages. This figure, Moran described, is “designed to be a deterrent basically, make sure that something like this doesn’t happen to someone else.”
He also seeks $3.5 million damage to his “personal and professional reputation, business opportunities, and livelihood.”
“This destroyed his life,” Moran declared. “How is he going to get a job somewhere else? He was one of the top political reporters in the country or investigative journalists. And now, how does he even get employed anywhere? He’s been presented in the media as though he is some sexual predator when he didn’t do anything wrong.”
Update – 10:00 PM ET
After publication, Christian Chiakulas responded to a request for a statement.
“No statement on that, but if you actually care about having your facts straight, the second of ‘multiple accusers’ referred to Hammond and Graceanne Parks, who recanted AFTER [my story] was published,” Chiakulas claimed. “The rumors of the six additional accusers came well after publication of my story, and as I told you before, I don’t think they’re credible. But that doesn’t fit the narrative you’re trying to create that I lied or ‘spun’ things.”