News agency Central European News has began legal action against Buzzfeed over a 5,000-word story headlined: ‘The King of Bullshit News’.
CEN has engaged a lawyer in the US (where Buzzfeed is based) and asked for damages and the removal of the article.
If Buzzfeed refuses to comply CEN owner Michael Leidig said he plans to take the online publisher to court seeking damages for unfair competition and defamation.
The 5,000-word Buzzfeed investigation into CEN was published on 24 April and described the Austria-based agency as "one of the Western media’s primary sources of tantalising and attention-grabbing stories". And it said that these stories are "often inaccurate or downright false".
CEN supplies human interest stories from around the world to many UK national newspapers and websites.
In a legal letter to Buzzfeed chief executive Jonah Peretti and editor Ben Smith, New York-based lawyer Harry Wise said the story was “false and libelous”.
He said: “Even if the allegation of the article that, out of 8,000 stories sent out by CEN over the course of a year, 11 proved to be ‘completely false or … based on images that did not match the stories’ and eight others ‘contained suspicious details such as perfect quotes that appeared in no other coverage’ were true, this would hardly warrant the charges made, absent any evidence of wrongdoing by Mr Leidig or anyone on his staff.
“In fact, however, the allegation is itself false, apparently the product of ‘journalists’ content to rely on internet searches and telephone calls, and without the journalistic chops (a working knowledge of Chinese or Russian, for example), or the time and money, to do a competent investigation.”
The letter goes on to respond to the Buzzfeed claims in detail and concludes: “This scurrilous, half-baked ‘story’ has caused a great deal of damage to Mr Leidig and CEN, including the loss of specific investments.
“We demand that it be taken down, retracted, and apologized for, and that suitable compensation be paid. If I do not hear from you promptly, we will file suit against your company in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.”
In June, Leidig published a 126-page digital book responding to the Buzzfeed article called: Buzzfeed Bottom Feeders – An Insider Look at How Buzzfeed Tried To Destroy A Rival Business.
Leidig believes his agency was unfairly targeted by Buzzfeed because it is a rival provider of "viral" news stories.
He said: “When the grossly inaccurate Buzzfeed article was published it was quickly repeated worldwide with nobody calling to check if CEN had anything to say.
“Because BuzzFeed UK does not appear to be regulated by any official body unlike other UK media, the only opportunity to gain a correction was to complain to them directly, which we did when Janine Gibson took over [as UK editor].
“A recorded delivery letter and email was sent more than a month ago, addressed to Janine Gibson personally. It was ignored.
“Since the BuzzFeed report in April, we have lost a 500,000 Euro investment after the backer not surprisingly pulled out in the face of such a damning article, and have been forced to take down our English language news websites containing hundreds of thousands of unique articles because of intense media scrutiny.
“Despite that, we offered to settle the matter amicably with no financial compensation because I don't believe a sustained legal battle is in anybody's interest. Buzzfeed it seems were not interested in that option.
“The legal bid to get a retraction is now the only option and one that as a media group ourselves we use extremely reluctantly, but with no independent body monitoring Buzzfeed and with our complaint to them ignored for more than a month, there is now no other alternative.”
A Buzzfeed spokesman told Press Gazette that it has yet to see the letter (sent to its offices yesterday) so it could not comment.