Sunday’s episode of the HBO program “Last Week Tonight,” a comedy show hosted by John Oliver that takes deep dives into various issues, often exposing supposed wrongdoing while cracking jokes, focused on a number of issues in the coal industry. The segment began by addressing the hit that the coal industry has taken over the years, disputing certain assertions in the industrial and political spheres that blamed the industry’s decline on President Barack Obama. It then went on to specifically discuss Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corporation, a coal company. Just a few days later, Murray, along with other coal companies, slapped Oliver, producer Charles Wilson, HBO, and parent company Time Warner, Inc. with a defamation lawsuit.
The complaint characterized the show’s segment as “false, injurious, and defamatory,” and an “attempt to advance their biases against the coal industry and their disdain for the coal-related policies of the Trump Administration.” The complaint notes that Time Warner “is widely reported as a top ten donor of Hillary Clinton.” Clinton, the complaint says, had an agenda of putting coal miners and companies out of business.
The complaint says that after the show informed Murray and the various companies of their plans for the show, Murray and the others sent information to counter the show’s claims, but the show “ignored them and ‘doubled-down- on their character assassination of Mr. Murray” and the others.
According to the lawsuit, the sources that “Last Week Tonight” relied on for their coal segment were “outdated,” and Murray told this to the show before the segment aired, saying, “You recklessly rely exclusively on previously discredited media reports.”
One part of the segment that the complaint picks out is where Oliver showed a clip of an interview with Murray after a fatal mine collapse, where Murray said that it was caused by an earthquake. Oliver commented that Murray continued to claim that an earthquake led to the mine collapse even after a government investigation said this was not the case.
The complaint begs to differ. It asserts that the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s report said that a “slip along a joint” or “joint slip in the overburden,” which the complaint says is “very similar” to the definition of an earthquake according to the U.S. Geological Survey, was a “likely candidate” as a cause of the collapse.
The complaint also cites unnamed studies that said that the collapse was a “seismic event,” and “caused by what many would characterize as an earthquake.” It notes that when Murray got to the mine after the collapse, the University of Utah was saying that an earthquake had taken place less than five miles away from the mine.
Oliver’s quote from a report saying there was no evidence that an earthquake caused the collapse was taken out or context, the complaint says. The lawsuit alleges that Oliver “intentionally, falsely, and outrageously” said that Murray’s claim of an earthquake was bogus, even after the show’s producer received information supporting the earthquake claim.
In the days after the segment aired, the complaint alleges, Murray Energy’s website was hacked and also received insulting messages. The companies who brought the lawsuit also claim that the received harassing phone calls related to the statements made on the show.
As far as the allegation of character assassination? The lawsuit points out, among other statements, that Oliver described Murray as being like “a geriatric Dr. Evil,” referencing the villain in the Austin Powers series of movies.
Interestingly enough, the segment points out Murray’s history of litigation, including libel lawsuits against The New York Times, the Akron Beacon Journal, and a Huffington Post contributor and even a cease and desist letter to “Last Week Tonight.” When discussing the cease and desist letter on the air, Oliver said, “let us do neither of those things and let’s talk about Bob Murray.”
The lawsuit makes claims of defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, seeking an unspecified amount in damages.
Oliver said in a statement directed to Murray towards the close of his segment, “I know that you are probably going to sue me, but you know what? I stand by everything I said.”
HBO said in a statement to LawNewz.com, “While we have not seen the complaint, we have confidence in the staff of Last Week Tonight and do not believe anything in the show this week violated Mr. Murray’s or Murray Energy’s rights.”
[Image via HBO screengrab]