One of television’s most powerful men, 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager, hired a law firm that boasts about “killing stories” for a Washington Post investigation into him, three sources familiar with the matter told The Daily Beast.
The story was a deep dive into what CBS managers knew about former anchor Charlie Rose’s alleged sexual misconduct, but due to the aggressive tactics of law firm Clare Locke, the sources said, the story was “effectively neutered.”
Clare Locke also did work for former Today show host Matt Lauer and current New York Times reporter Glenn Thrush, three sources say. Both men were accused in news publications of sexually harassing women. The law firm was also recently hired by David Pecker, the CEO and chairman of American Media Inc., parent company of the National Enquirer, to try and shut down a negative story from a newspaper, according to two sources.
Clare Locke is the creation of husband and wife team Tom Clare and Elizabeth “Libby” Locke. “Some of Libby’s biggest defamation ‘wins’ are stories the public will never hear about,” her website says. They have litigated against Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Katie Couric, CNN, and Gawker, to name a few.
And despite being retained by some of the biggest names in media, Locke has publicly backed President Trump’s call to “open up” libel laws and attacked shield laws that protect journalists from disclosing their sources in court. “How are you supposed to prove as a defamation plaintiff that the journalist knew what they were writing was false if you don’t have access to the identities of their sources? It’s really problematic,” she said in a speech last year to the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group.
Locke continued, saying she wanted to “talk a little bit about why the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of freedom of the press.”
Last November, The Washington Post broke the story that eight women had accused CBS News anchor Charlie Rose of sexual harassment, going back decades. Reporters Amy Brittain and Irin Carmon weren’t done when that was published, though, and went back to dig on who knew what and when at CBS, three sources say.
By April, Fager and other CBS News executives were “all terrified about a looming Washington Post investigation that’s now been in the works for months,” the New York Post’s Page Six reported.
On May 3, The Washington Post reported Rose’s alleged harassment was more widespread than first reported and that three managers were told. Fager, who installed Rose on the 60 Minutes roster in 2008 and tapped him for the CBS morning show in 2011, was barely mentioned. He told the Post he hadn’t learned of the allegations against Rose until the first report emerged in November.
Multiple sources say the follow-up story as filed had included more reporting about Fager.
Clare Locke was “able to slow it down and in effect change the dynamic,” a person with knowledge of the situation told The Daily Beast. The law firm sent The Washington Post several letters threatening litigation, the sources said. As a result, other reporting about Fager was left out of the published story, three sources said.
An investigative journalist who has been on the receiving end of a Clare Locke letter said it’s effective: “They slow it down. It’s just annoying. It spooks you which can then spook your sources.”
Brittain and Carmon were so irate their investigation had been watered down they made their displeasure known to Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron, a source told The Daily Beast, adding, “They were pissed.”
The Washington Post said in a statement it “devotes enormous resources to investigative journalism. Each of the many stories we publish must meet longstanding standards for publication. Outside pressures, legal or otherwise, do not determine what we publish.”
Carmon made an apparent reference to such “outside pressures” last month when she and Brittain accepted a Mirror Award for “Best Story on Sexual Misconduct in the Media Industry.”
“The stories that we have been doing are about a system. The system has lawyers and a good reputation,” Carmon said in her acceptance speech. “Indeed, the system is sitting in this room. Some more than others. The system is still powerful men getting stories killed that I believe will one day see the light of day.”
Fager was present at the award ceremony to accept a special honor for 60 Minutes’ work. Fager and CBS declined to comment for this story.
Clare told The Daily Beast: “We’re proud of the pre-publication work we do to make sure that media reports about our clients are truthful and accurate.”
The powerhouse law firm started with a romance, former coworkers say.
Tom Clare was an equity partner at Kirkland & Ellis based in Washington, D.C. in 2006 when he met Libby Locke, a lawyer who had just joined the firm’s litigation unit as an associate after graduating from Georgetown Law School in 2005, four former Kirkland & Ellis employees said.
By 2011, Libby was a non-equity partner. “To break through the noise you need a good sponsor and Tom was that for her, definitely,” a former co-worker said.
Tom and Libby left Kirkland to set up their own firm, Clare Locke, in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2014, according to business records. (They got married in 2017 and recently welcomed a baby girl into the world, Libby’s third child. They even own a private plane together, according to FAA records.) “Our clients include CEOs, hedge-fund managers, professional athletes, celebrities, high net worth and prominent individuals, consumer products companies, and even professional journalists,” they boast on their website.
One of those professional journalists is Glenn Thrush of The New York Times. Tom Clare sent a letter on behalf of Thrush to Vox when he was accused of sexual harassment by several women, including journalist Laura McGann. Clare “suggested that the company look into McGann’s ‘relationships’” at Politico, where McGann and Thrush had worked together,” Jezebel reported after obtaining the letter.
“We didn’t know the extent to which she would be reporting on her own experiences and the experiences of others in the same story,” Clare told The Daily Beast about the letter. “It was in no way victim-shaming. We thought it was a fair question. We thought it was an issue that needed to be disclosed.”
At the same time Clare Locke was working with Thrush, one of the Times’ most recognizable journalists, they were also representing Sarah Palin in a appeal against the Times. Palin accused the newspaper of libel over a opinion piece saying the Republican’s rhetoric led to the assassination attempt on Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in 2011. (Thrush and the Times declined to comment.)
“There’s is a new spin on defamation practice. They are bragging about killing stories. They are not focusing on litigation but the pre-publication element to squash a story,” said Theodore J. Boutrous Jr., partner at the Gibson Dunn law firm and a vocal First Amendment advocate.
Boutrous was surprised to learn that journalists had retained Clare Locke.
“That is extraordinary and it is really playing with fire. Once you start as a journalist engaging in those sorts of tactics, it’s almost certain to fuel others to engage in those tactics even more and that’s bad for journalism.”
Clare said, “We take it as a great compliment that, in a small fraction of our matters, professional journalists have retained our firm.”
The roll call of lawsuits involving Clare Locke reads like a list of some of the biggest names in media in recent memory.
Clare Locke won a $3 million judgment for University of Virginia’s dean of students in a defamation case against Rolling Stone over a retracted story that said the campus administrator dismissed a woman’s allegation she was raped on campus.
Clare Locke has also sued on behalf of a gun-rights group against Katie Couric (they lost that case, but plan to appeal); the former investigator of the Jerry Sandusky sex-abuse scandal on behalf of Pennsylvania State University’s former president (dismissed by a judge. The judge had compared a complaint in that case to a “James Patterson novel”); a heart surgeon against CNN (the case is continuing); a Muslim activist against the Southern Poverty Law Center (won a $3.4 million defamation judgment); and the U.K.’s Daily Mail against Gawker (settled with a more detailed correction, according to a source).
“They are very good. They know where to press and what will have an effect,” one lawyer who has tangled with the firm on multiple occasions told The Daily Beast. “They are pretty successful in managing to have a story framed to suit their clients’ interests.”
A top lawyer at a national media organization was less impressed: “I don’t think this strategy is very effective. You have to look at how many suits are filed to letters sent. You’re in the ratio of elbow cancer.”
One journalist told The Daily Beast about his own experience with Clare Locke, who represented a Zambian businessman.
David Marchant, who runs the website OffshoreAlert.com, published a court document showing the government of Zambia had requested assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice as part of an investigation into Rajan Lekhraj Mahtani. Clare Locke wrote to OffshoreAlert in March a demand letter for the “immediate removal” of the document. (Another website, Zambia Reports, which has reported on Mahtani, caved to the legal threats. A person with knowledge of the situation said “They were bullied and intimidated into pulling those articles down.”)
Marchant, whose work was profiled by The Wall Street Journal after 11 people exposed by OffshoreAlert were charged with fraud and money laundering, refused the demand.
“When I responded, I never heard from them. It speaks for itself. I secretly say bring the lawsuit. My message to them is ‘I’m going to whip down your pants and bend you over my knee and give you a damn good spanking and it’s going to be in public.”
“They are banking on me being a wimp or ignorant. I’m neither of those two things. I’m a trained journalist. A lot of people will cave to a slightest bit of pressure,” Marchant told The Daily Beast. “No one wants to be sued. They knew they didn’t have a legal basis. It was not the most professional letter. You can tell who is serious and who isn’t. It was nonsense in there. It was absurd. It was Mickey Mouse.”
Boutrous said letters like that are oftentimes meant to “intimidate publication of newsworthy information.
“They rarely sue, but seek to deter publication—but threatening to do so and that can have a real chilling effect on First Amendment rights. That’s especially true when the threats are being made to small publications and websites where they don’t have a legal team in place to deal with those issues.”
But Tom Clare added “It’s easy (but flat wrong) for critics to mischaracterize our work as ‘making threats’ and ‘chilling speech’ when, in reality, we promote accurate reporting by presenting the facts and evidence that journalists need to make informed decisions about the stories they are considering for publication.”
For her part, Locke told The Federalist Society she is a fan of the First Amendment.
“It is what separates this great democratic republic from many of the other nations around the world. We have the freedom to go online to speak our minds to criticize our government and to criticize businesses and individuals and we are not going to be locked up and thrown in jail as a result of that. But this hysteria about the war on the press is incredibly overblown.”