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Mississippi Today seeks dismissal of...

Mississippi Today seeks dismissal of defamation lawsuit filed by former Governor Bryant

By: Frank Corder - August 31, 2023

Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White (left) and former Governor Phil Bryant (right)

Bryant claims the “false accusations” have cost him $500,000 in lost annual business revenue. Mississippi Today’s defense relies on free speech and freedom of the press.

At the end of July, former Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant sued Mississippi Today’s parent company, Deep South Today, along with its Chief Executive Officer, Mary Margaret White, for defamation in Madison County Circuit Court. Now the media outlet is asking the Madison County Circuit Court to dismiss the suit, relying on free speech and freedom of the press.

The lawsuit came after Bryant sent the media outlet two notices of intent to sue – one in May, the other in July – over comments made by White at a Knight Foundation conference, as well as wording used to promote investigative reporter Anna Wolfe’s Pulitzer winning “The Backchannel” series. 

READ MORE: Bryant was not bluffing Mississippi Today

In an amended complaint, the former Governor’s legal counsel, attorney William Quin, claims Mississippi Today’s “false accusations caused Bryant to sustain compensatory damages, including special and general damages” of nearly $500,000 in lost annual income as a result of the media outlet’s alleged defamation. After leaving office in 2020, Bryant was among a group that opened a lobbying and consulting firm.

The Bryant complaint also notes that the accusations have caused the former Governor to sustain non-economic damages, including impairment of reputation and standing in the local, state, national, and business communities, personal humiliation, mental anguish, suffering, and emotional distress.

Ultimately, Bryant is seeking a judgment against Mississippi Today, its CEO and the parent company for compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.

In his May letter, Bryant focused on White’s claim that he had “embezzled” welfare funds. White later published a “note” acknowledging her mistake in using the word. Bryant’s suit repeats that he has not “embezzled ‘welfare funds’ or any other public funds,” a legal term that carries a specific meaning. His legal team characterizes White’s published note as a “non-apology apology.”

In their defense, the Mississippi Today defendants point to the 1964 U.S Supreme Court case of New York Times v. Sullivan, a decision which carved out a different set of standards for defamation against a public figure.

The Supreme Court said in order to prove defamation of a public figure, that person must show that what was said against them was made with actual malice, “that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth,” and with “clear and convincing evidence.”

Whether the standard from New York Times v. Sullivan controls will likely be a hotly contested item between the parties. Bryant has said that Mississippi Today is guilty of defamation per se under Mississippi law, which carries a lower bar for liability.

If Sullivan controls, it would afford Mississippi Today a second bite at a defense. Even if Bryant can establish that what the outlet said was false, he would still have to prove actual malice.

Bryant’s complaint also brings in Mississippi Today Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau and reporter Anna Wolfe. Bryant points to a conversation on “The Other Side” podcast, where Ganucheau told Wolfe, “To date, we have not had to issue any retraction or correction on anything Backchannel-related. You should be proud of that, and I’m proud of that.”

Bryant’s complaint, however, references an instance where Mississippi Today published an “Editor’s note” on their “welfare coverage.” This note came after it was revealed by the former Y’all Politics in September of 2022 that Ganucheau’s mother was the legal counsel assigned from Attorney General Jim Hood’s office to advise Mississippi’s Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL). She twice recommended a project at the University of Southern Mississippi which has become central to Mississippi Today’s reporting.

The Attorney General’s office assigns attorneys to boards and commissions to provide legal and compliance advice that is pivotal to their operation, since boards are typically comprised of lay members.

“Ganucheau downplayed his mother’s involvement in the project, characterizing her role as ‘bureaucratic.’ Ganucheau’s claim of ignorance and mischaracterization of his mother’s role was intentionally misleading,” Bryant’s complaint asserts. “Ganucheau and Wolfe knew long before September 20, 2022, that Ganucheau’s mother recommended the lease to the IHL board; they concealed this information until another media outlet exposed it; and they have continued to hide the full scope of her authority and involvement from Mississippi Today’s audience.”

In their response, Mississippi Today’s legal counsel, attorney Henry Laird, denied those allegations. White issued a statement on their defense to the lawsuit which read “[w]e will vigorously defend this case and ensure the people of Mississippi that the press will not be intimidated. We stand for press freedom and will always uphold our mission of building a more informed Mississippi.”

An early contest in the case centers on subpoenas issued by Bryant on non-parties for communications with Mississippi Today staff, including Wolfe. Attorneys Gerald and Carroll Bufkin, who were among those subpoenaed and who represent Nancy New in Mississippi Department of Human Services civil suit, filed a motion to quash their subpoena.

At this time, no trial date has been set on the matter.


Publisher Note: Magnolia Tribune was formed as a legal entity in October of 2022 and formally launched in January of 2023. Following formation, it acquired the assets of Jackson New Media, including the Y’all Politics brand and all of its content. We have chosen to provide access to that content in a historical archive. Magnolia Tribune makes no representations with regard to the content. The information, views and opinions contained therein are not necessarily those of Magnolia Tribune, its board, or leadership.

About the Author(s)
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Frank Corder

Frank Corder is a native of Pascagoula. For nearly two decades, he has reported and offered analysis on government, public policy, business and matters of faith. Frank’s interviews, articles, and columns have been shared throughout Mississippi as well as in national publications such as the Daily Caller. He is a frequent guest on radio and television, providing insight and commentary on the inner workings of the Magnolia State. Frank has served his community in both elected and appointed public office, hosted his own local radio and television programs, and managed private businesses all while being an engaged husband and father. Email Frank: