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More generally, Cuniff was the go-to source of reliable information about the criminal case against rapper Tory Lanez, who shot rapper Megan Thee Stallion in July 2020 in Los Angeles.
From the beginning, the case was mired by a mountain of opinions, misinformation and conspiracy theories. Though Megan Thee Stallion never pressed charges against Lanez, she has been the target of jokes, online harassment and attempts to undermine her credibility by Lanez’s legal team, fans, entertainment blogs and her own peers in the music industry.
Lanez was convicted in December of three felony counts — assault with a semiautomatic firearm; having a loaded, unregistered firearm in a vehicle; and discharging a firearm with gross negligence. On August 8, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, turning the page on a traumatic chapter of Megan Thee Stallion’s life.
“He not only shot me, he made a mockery of my trauma. He tried to position himself as a victim and set out to destroy my character and my soul,” Megan Thee Stallion said in a statement submitted to the district attorney.
In the sea of noise throughout this case, Cuniff emerged a star in her own right, providing clarification and facts that have been celebrated by many people following the story closely. Cuniff is an experienced reporter with local news outlets who has covered education, law enforcement and the courts for nearly two decades. Today she works independently and self-publishes to her own website, “Legal Affairs and Trials with Meghann Cuniff.”
Cuniff spoke with The 19th about what it was like to cover the Lanez trial and wade through the online hostility.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Candice Norwood: You’ve been covering courts and celebrity trials for a while. What stood out to you about this particular case with Tory Lanez?
Meghann Cuniff: Definitely the social media interest and just all the attention to the trial was unusual. But then what was really unusual for me, and what I noticed, was how much attention the defense team has paid to the media coverage and how important the media coverage was to Lanez and the attorneys.
A lot of attorneys are siloed during a trial like that, and aren’t worried about the media attention, because none of that is affecting the jury. But it just seemed like there was a huge concern about the cameras, and there was so much focus on publicity from the defense team.
Can you talk a little bit more about that? Was there something in particular you were seeing that indicated they really cared about the media attention?
From the very beginning the publicity seemed to be such a big thing. You can hear it in the jail call, when Lanez calls [Megan’s ex-friend] Kelsey Harris right after he’s arrested. He never actually apologizes for the shooting, but he apologizes for the acts that led to the shooting. And he talks about the blogs and word starting to get out about the shooting. It really had his attention.
Then I noticed little things during the trial, like once I saw Tory fans and accounts on Twitter sharing excerpts from a trial transcript. And I thought to myself, “That is definitely the court reporter’s transcript from today.” Lawyers can buy the transcripts, and they’re really expensive.
Once the lawyer gets them, it’s not illegal to send them out. He can do whatever he wants with them. But what struck me was that normally when a lawyer gets the court reporter’s transcripts it’s because they’re using it to prepare closing arguments, and they’re going over quotes from the testimony in a PowerPoint and that kind of thing.
So it was kind of amazing to me that Tory’s team was giving these transcripts out to bloggers, but they weren’t using them in their case in a closing argument presentation.
- Previous coverage:
There’s been a lot of discussion about misinformation being spread throughout this case. What did you observe, and can you contextualize where this misinformation was coming from?
The misinformation was so striking to me because at first it was unclear to me whether it was malicious or just stupidity. And I think it’s a mix of both. I think there’s malicious bad actors who are intentionally putting out information that they know is false, but then there’s a huge crowd that just believes it.
And it leads to this aggregation, regurgitation thing that spreads it like wildfire. The social media aspect was so big that I would get called into misinformation sites. For example, when Tory was booked into jail, there was an “RM” next to his name in the booking record. Somebody started saying online that “RM” meant that all of his charges were going to get “reduced to a misdemeanor.” That is just the most ridiculous thing in the world. That’s not what it means. It means he was remanded to jail from court.
So it was new for me to experience how much people would depend on me for those clarifications. They would see this kind of post go viral online, and I would start getting tagged, like, “Meghann, is this true?” I was learning how to navigate that.
One thing I think my reporting brought to the table and one advantage that I had was that I started as a K-12 schools reporter in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, when I was 25 years old. My job was to go to school board meetings at the Coeur d’Alene School District and write articles about what happened. Then I moved up to Spokane, Washington, and covered the night cops beat at The Spokesman-Review for a couple years and wrote stories on murder arrests and big cases like that.
When you have a background of writing that stuff, you just learned how to write fast and relay the facts. So you can kind of translate that to everything else you cover. So when you go down to California and start covering celebrity trials like this, you’ve got this huge reporting background that I think a lot of people don’t have.
On top of the misinformation, there were some other tough dynamics at play in this case. There’s race, there’s misogyny, violence against women and Black women specifically.
And I’m thinking of Megan first and foremost and the level of harassment and threats that she’s experienced as a result of this case. Do you consider these different factors, whether it’s race or online violence, when reporting?
I definitely think about the kind of man’s world that we’re living in, and not only misogyny against women generally, but misogyny against Black women, too. As a White woman, that’s not an area that I feel completely comfortable talking about, but it’s just such an obvious issue here.
You can’t just say this is about violence against women. It’s about violence against Black women, and the way that’s addressed, especially in the hip hop world. It’s just not a topic that people want to engage in.
Looking at Lanez’s fans, there was vitriol coming not only from males, but especially from the women fans of Lanez. They just thought Megan was a “lying hoe,” and they still to this day, just think that she’s lying. I see headlines written on blogs. Just today, one of the headlines was, “Tory Lanez gets 10 years in prison because of Megan Thee Stallion.” It doesn’t say anything about him shooting her or anything. These headlines are written maliciously to get crowds incensed against her, like it’s her fault he’s going to prison. And it’s still going on.
- More on Megan:
What are your thoughts about Megan Thee Stallion’s presence throughout this case? It seems to me like she is speaking up more recently about the violence and trauma she’s experienced.
I think, especially before Lanez was convicted, and when the trial was going on, Megan didn’t want to comment on it. But I also think this was a personally traumatic experience for her. She later talked about how she deals with it every day, and I think Tory Lanez and his people made a point of trying to make it so she had to deal with it and she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Still to this day, as we’re talking, somebody is probably typing something derogatory about her.
Since the conviction she’s gotten more active trying to take back her power. It’s got to make her feel at least a little bit better that he got convicted. But still, there was just so much stuff that happened over the last eight months with what his lawyers were doing, and the showboating, even during the sentencing hearing.
The prosecutor said you would have thought that we were at a “man of the year” ceremony or something. It was just so over the top. Lanez’s attorney Jose Baez was talking about, “This young man and his unbelievable acts of kindness.” They were just making him out to be the victim in this whole thing. They had videos of him at charity drives and people were actually apologizing to him like, “Oh, I’m so sorry you had to go through this.”
Apparently Megan wanted to go to speak in person, the prosecutor said, but she just couldn’t bear to do it and to be in the same room as him at all. I think it’s important that the prosecutor’s office held a press conference where they talked about Megan’s bravery. I think that’s something that everybody needs to remember in the whole case: It’s been all about Lanez in a way, and she’s been marginalized. We need to turn the end of the story into how she is reclaiming her power and getting back to her life.
I know as reporters we are taught to not center ourselves in the story. But I’m wondering if covering this case and all of the vitriol involved affected you on a personal level?
I can’t say that it didn’t didn’t affect me. You have to have strong skin in this industry. I’ve covered high-profile cases before, and I’ve been used to some flak, but it was such a smaller scale than with the Tory Lanez stuff.
It’s such a higher level in this case, and they’re way more vicious and vulgar. And I don’t want to say this is a benefit, but one thing I thought about going through the experience was, “Wow, if they are being this vicious to me, then I can’t even imagine what they’ve been doing to Megan Thee Stallion the last two years.” I mean, if they’re talking to a reporter who’s covering the case like this, it must have just been crazy terrible.
Obviously the news industry has changed a lot over the last decade. Many trained reporters have been laid off or are struggling to find jobs and have pursued independent publishing avenues. Do you have any tips for people looking to do independent reporting? I don’t mean random dudes with opinion podcasts, but actual journalists.
I definitely advise people to try to get as much experience as they can from traditional outlets. It scares me what’s happening with high school papers disappearing and college papers disappearing. I think any kind of guidance you can get with that is the best, but the key, I think, is staying true to who you are, and finding a way to set your reporting apart from everyone else.
We live in a world where everyone is just covering the same thing, and we kind of have this aggregation upon aggregation upon aggregation that will just just drive you crazy. I worry that nobody knows how to do their own reporting. Going independent can be scary, and I felt lucky and I had a good opportunity to do this because of the audience I built. The best way to be able to go independent is to have a reputation that you’ve built over the years and sometimes that can come from traditional journalism jobs, especially for people who may not have that much experience.