Singer-songwriter Joseph Arthur has filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Times, saying the newspaper’s use of the term “anti-vax” in a headline a year ago was defamatory, because the artist has strongly crusaded against COVID shots but has not expressed a position opposing all kinds of vaccines.
Arthur is represented in the suit by Steven S. Biss. The Virginia attorney is widely known for representing, among other clients, Republican lawmaker Devin Nunes, in defamation suits against media organizations like CNN and the Washington Post as well as, famously, anonymous Twitter accounts like “Devon Nunes’ Cow.”
Arthur and Biss are seeking damages of $25 million.
The main point of contention appears to be the word “anti-vax” appearing in the Aug. 19 story’s headline — “He was a celebrated singer-songwriter with famous fans. Then he started posting about the vaccine” — although that term doesn’t appear in the article itself. Although Arthur’s virulent, public opposition to COVID vaccines is beyond any kind of dispute, the lawsuit suggests that the headline led readers to falsely assume the singer has come out against other types of inoculations.
The suit maintains that the entire article caused Arthur to be “shunned and avoided” in the music community, although no other specific passages in the L.A. Times’ piece beyond the headline are singled out or quoted as examples of falsehoods. The filing does indicate that every passage of the article that suggests COVID vaccines have been proven to have scientific validity is itself a falsehood.
“Arthur’s prescient statements about the COVID-19 vaccines were 100% factually accurate,” the lawsuit says.
“The Article impugned Arthur’s professional integrity and exposed him to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy as someone who was against all vaccines. Publication caused him to be shunned and avoided. The Article severely injured Arthur in his occupation as a musician, leading directly to the cancellation of multiple gigs. In addition to the pain, emotional suffering, insult, embarrassment, humiliation, and injury to reputation, LA Times’ publication caused career damage, loss of future earnings, and impaired and diminished Arthur’s earning capacity.”
The suit appears to hold the Times’ article wholly responsible for a backlash among former friends and associates. But the contested story was presented as recounting considerable career damage Arthur had already experienced. Wrote the Times a year ago: “Being the relentless voice of what he considers a disaffected minority has cost him. This year his longtime music manager dropped him as a client, followed by his booking agent. Arthur’s newly formed band quit en masse, and he says he lost a record deal that would have distributed a new double album to his fans…. His remaining fans beseech him to stop.”
Among the statements Arthur had made earlier in 2021, some of which were quoted in the Times’ article, was: “Dr. Anthony Fauci should go to prison, not just be fired.” He was quoted as saying on Instagram that venues should be careful about mandating vaccine proof for admission: “If the clubs and venues force it, we’ll take it to the streets.” Shortly before the Times’ piece, he released a protest song called “Stop the Shot.”
On Facebook, Arthur recited a poem titled “The Unfollow Threat” informing fans that he would be pleased if those who’d turned against him would actually unfollow instead of just threatening to. “This is what the Nazis did with the Jews, when comparing them to vermin before rounding them up and taking them into camps,” he said into the camera. “Then there’s isolation — that’s the other technician in the cult of indoctrination. How could they amp that up? Tell people they can’t leave their homes, they can’t socialize except through screens, deflate any warmth from the room of their dreams…”
The ratio of responses on his Facebook page made it clear that the majority of those choosing to respond were not buying it. “Dying of coronavirus to own the libs,” wrote one respondent. “Wow, insanity is a hell of a drug,” wrote another. And: “Oh look, Goyim Are Comparing Things to the Holocaust II.”
But there’s little doubt that the widely forwarded Times piece drew a heightened level of attention to Arthur’s COVID views that had been more limited before, however rightly or wrongly it was being presented.
The new lawsuit includes, as an example of “deleterious effect on readers, including those who did business with Arthur,” an email from a well-known club in the D.C./Virginia area, the 200-capacity Jammin’ Java, postponing his show there. A club representative wrote Arthur: “We have been getting a lot of pushback, emails and such from both staff and customers after that article came out about vaccine and mask stuff…. It’s not what we want to do but it’s what we have to do. As a venue right now, we can’t do anything that would make staff or patrons feel unsafe, as so much of the game we are playing right now is about ‘peace of mind.’ I hope you understand.” (The Times’ story had mentioned the Jammin’ Java gig as the only solo concert left on his calendar at that point.)
At the point of the story’s publication, Arthur had already suffered the cancellation of the release of a completed sophomore album he’d recorded with R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck in their guise as a duo, Arthur Buck. The nixed album and the duo are not mentioned in the lawsuit.
The suit includes an excerpt from a DM conversation between the singer and the article’s author, Randall Roberts (who has since left the Times and is not named as a defendant). In the exchange, Arthur protests the “anti-vax” term in the headline, and Roberts suggests he email the paper’s music editor, Craig Marks, about it, since he was the one who came up with the headline.
“I’m not an anti-vaxxer,” Arthur wrote Roberts. “I’m anti- this experimental shot with no long-term tests that is harming many and completely ineffective against the spread of the virus. I’m anti-censorship and anti- the suppression of safe and effective treatments that could save lives. You have misrepresented me here. … You specifically asked me if I was anti-vax and I specifically answered that no I was not. No small detail in today’s environment. A piece like this requires nuance. Obviously I knew it would lean in a negative light but I assumed there wouldn’t be outright lies printed. Especially in a headline. That comes up on a Google search.”
The lawsuit also claims that the L.A. Times endangered Arthur’s infant daughter by publishing a photo of the two. “By prominently inserting a photograph in the Article of Arthur holding his newborn baby, LA Times intended and endorsed the false and defamatory implication, and implied that Arthur was endangering his child, his family, indeed all of society,” it reads.
The court filing includes a link to a tweet from the writer, Roberts, saying to a fellow tweeter, “Thanks Robert. I’m still torn about whether this was a good idea or not.” The suit says this tweet represents the journalist publicly admitting a lack of belief in the veracity of his own article. But the tweet preceding it from another user has been deleted, and without any further context, it’s not clear whether Roberts was expressing doubts about his own reporting, seconds thoughts about the article possibly exposing Arthur to further ridicule, or some altogether different meaning.
Arthur’s strongly expressed COVID views left him in a similar position to that of Ariel Pink, another once critically admired cult artist who won over some new conservative fans with controversial views even as much of the liberal part of his audience soured on a former favorite.
A 10-year member of Arthur’s band, Rene Lopez, expressed alarm about his former band leader in the 2021 Times piece, saying, “His rhetoric has been horribly dangerous for the past year. He keeps egging fans on not to wear masks and to just boost their nutrition. Some are lapping it up. It’s been frightening. Something changed in him about three years ago, he hasn’t been ok since. I saw the change happen right in the beginning because he started sending me videos of different dudes talking about conspiracy stuff. I’ve seen him go through so many phases. This phase is worrisome, of course.” Arthur indeed hinted at a conspiratorial viewpoint in his interview with the Times, which quoted him using the term “end-times type of stuff.”
But the new suit posits that Arthur was enjoying smooth sailing in his career until August of last year, and that the Times saying he was already suffering was false. “The Article falsely implies that Arthur’s ‘questioning’ of the science behind the experimental COVID-19 vaccines and the motives of the Government and pharmaceutical companies ‘cost him,’ and caused the loss of certain music industry relationships.”
The suit asks for a jury trial, and for damages and court costs to be assessed above and beyond the $25 million.