The allegations became public at a moment when Fairfax seemed poised to take over for Gov. Ralph Northam (D), then on the verge of resigning over a racist photo in his 1984 medical school yearbook. Northam did not step down.
Both women gave interviews to Gayle King that aired last April on “CBS This Morning.” Fairfax filed a federal lawsuit in September, saying the network recklessly disregarded the truth and hyped what he says are false sexual assault allegations against him.
The suit, filed in federal court in Alexandria, claimed that CBS failed to “follow up on leads that would demonstrate the allegations to be false.” One of those concerns Fairfax’s claim that a witness was present at Fairfax’s sexual encounter with Watson and could corroborate that it was consensual.
The lawsuit contended that CBS could or should have known about the possibility of a witness before it aired the interview with Watson. The suit said a top CBS attorney was a Duke classmate who dated Watson a year before the alleged assault and remains a friend of Fairfax and the witness.
The suit also took issue with comments that King and her “This Morning” co-hosts made on air after the interviews that suggested they sympathized with and believed Fairfax’s accusers.
“You could see where she got very emotional and went to that dark place,” co-host Bianna Golodryga said at one point.
U.S. District Judge Anthony J. Trenga wrote that “Fairfax does not plausibly allege that CBS, in publishing ‘sensational and highly damaging accusations made by Tyson and Watson’ against him, violated ‘basic journalistic standards.’ ”
But Trenga rejected the network’s request that Fairfax pay its legal fees, which Fairfax considered a partial victory. “Fairfax’s allegations are not so ‘groundless, frivolous, or unreasonable’ or so lacking in a substantial basis in fact and law as to warrant an award of fees,” the judge wrote.
The judge noted that the women’s allegations were “uncorroborated” and leveled “under circumstances that raised issues as to their timing. And despite Fairfax’s detailed denials, which CBS reported on air, CBS’s commentary could be viewed by a reasonable listener as placing his accusers’ statements in a sympathetic light that gave them some degree of legitimacy.”
Representatives for CBS did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling.
“While we respect the court’s ruling, we disagree with it,” Fairfax said.
“We look forward to appealing the ruling on the motion to dismiss and view this is as a significant step forward in establishing that Meredith Watson fabricated her claim of rape and sexual assault and that Vanessa Tyson fabricated her claim of sexual assault,” he said.
Lawyers for the two women, who were not defendants in the suit, cheered the ruling.
“I guess Justin Fairfax has to figure out another way to make $400 million,” said Debra S. Katz, a lawyer for Vanessa Tyson, who said Fairfax forced her to perform a sex act at the Boston convention.
Said Watson’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith: “The court confirms that Fairfax’s lawsuit was frivolous. CBS aired the truthful accounts of Ms. Watson and Ms. Tyson.”
Fairfax, a former federal prosecutor had been widely viewed as a rising Democratic star and likely contender for governor in 2021 before the allegations arose last February. He has indicated that he still plans to pursue a bid, although he has not formally jumped into the race.
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.