Meghann M. Cuniff, aka Meghann Thee Reporter, Weighs in on the Tory Lanez Sentencing and the Social Media Circus Surrounding His Trial
“I was surprised at how focused [Lanez] seemed to be online,” says Cuniff, who became a leading voice on his case. “I was like, These guys seem completely gassed up on Instagram, Shaderoom comments, and the jury.”
When the first speculative article reported that Tory Lanez might have shot Megan thee Stallion, many people online took the opportunity to fire off hot takes. The misinformation and misogynoir on the internet crescendoed as the incident escalated into a high-profile trial: Lanez was brought up on charges by the State of California, Meg took the witness stand, and Lanez was found guilty on three felony charges last December. Earlier this week, a judge ordered a 10-year prison sentence for Lanez.
Amidst the deluge of sensationalism that surrounded the trial, there was another drama at play: legal affairs reporter Meghan Cuniff, a former Senior West Coast Correspondent for Law & Crime, versus the blogs.
“The first big tweet that I saw was somebody had taken my picture and they said, ‘It’s unfortunate that a white woman with a bob is our only source for accurate information,” she tells GQ with a laugh. “It just made me realize how personal the case was to people.” Black Twitter users affectionately nicknamed Cuniff “Meg thee Reporter” after they began to rely on her to deliver the facts of this case quickly and incisively via her Twitter and YouTube accounts. She delivered verification of the authenticity of the prison phone call between Lanez and Kelsey Harris ( Megan thee Stallion’s ex-friend who was with them the night she was shot), the real reason Lanzez’s lawyer Shawn Holley left his case, and the contents of the letters that celebrities like Iggy Azalea—who had been professing her neutrality on social media—wrote to the courts on behalf of Lanez.
Cuniff, who lives in Southern California and grew up in Oregon, comes from a family of legal scholars. She distinctly remembers her father, David Cuniff, discussing the O.J. Simpson trial during dinners. “He had theories. I mean, he was a criminal defense attorney, and he was skeptical of the police and power,” she explains. Today she cites Ann Rule, Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiassen as two of her favorite journalists, and the late Spokesman-Review investigative reporter Bill Morlin as a mentor. He had a motto: “Transcend bullshit,” Caniff recalls. “I’ve tried to keep him in mind, especially when you get down to Southern California and you almost feel like you’re covering a real-life Carl Hiaasen book with all the people around you and all the Orange County cliches that are going on.”
GQ talked to Cuniff about covering her most high-profile case yet.
GQ: What did you make of the mainstream media’s coverage of this trial? Are there things you would like to see change in how legal affairs and crime are covered?
Meghann Cuniff: I can completely understand why big mainstream outlets wouldn’t be covering [things like] the motion for a new trial or the [other] incremental things that have happened because everybody knew it’s standard. But there’s so much interest in this case that it just leaves this big, open space for blogs and almost malicious bad actors to come in and spread misinformation. Not only malicious bad actors but people who just don’t really have the training and sophistication to understand what they’re doing. They’re aggregators. They’re probably under pressure to come up with 10 stories a day or something.
Why did you think putting all these court documents on social media, specifically the Iggy Azalea and Mario’s letters was important?
That’s the current medium where everyone is. What I’ve noticed from researching court coverage and just looking at L.A. Superior Court over the years—because there’s so much history in that courthouse—they used to allow cameras all over the courthouse. There was a trial involving The Twilight Zone movie. It was a manslaughter trial. It was a huge, huge, high-profile case in the ’80s. And when you see the footage from it, have all the testimony on coverage. TV was just the medium back then. We’ve transitioned away from that.
The restrictions that courts place on access to coverage I think are hurtful to the public’s understanding of the court. When you’re talking about mainstream stuff and you’re trying to balance all the misinformation out there, I mean, you have to get on the same level.
A lot of people have fought against cameras in the courtroom, arguing that they make a spectacle out of cases. Do you think that video footage could be a hindrance in cases that revolve around figures who are generally met with more scrutiny than empathy, specifically survivors of abuse?
Yeah, I do. I should emphasize that there’s a big difference between now and the ‘80s when it comes to cameras in court. Like that Twilight Zone trial, when I looked at all the footage, I couldn’t find the verbatim hour-and-a-half testimony of each witness if I wanted. It’s not like every single moment of the trial was broadcast. The journalists who are doing it have the backing of a respectable news organization. They have values that have been instilled in them, rules that they’re hopefully adhering to, versus these blogs that are just re-broadcasting trials all day and you’ll see the cameras zoom in and focus on the person. That’s a new dynamic that we’re not dealing with. I don’t blame some judges for not wanting to allow cameras in the court.
The vicious internet crowd that you see is a new phenomenon in criminal cases, but then also civil cases. We’re seeing that with some sexual assault cases that have come up and just the victim shaming and entire social media accounts dedicated to making sure that the victim recants and withdraws a lawsuit or something.
Did you think Tory dug himself a hole with his anti-Meghan online campaign and attitude in the courtroom?
I was surprised at how focused he seemed to be online. And you can even hear it in the jail call that he makes to Kelsey right after it happens, where she starts talking about the blogs. And you can hear him panic. You can just tell how important it is for him. It makes sense when you’re an entertainer and your whole livelihood depends on popularity and people being drawn to you. But it doesn’t matter in the courtroom at all. I was like, These guys seem completely gassed up on Instagram, Shaderoom comments, and the jury.
Just the way he was so dismissive of Shawn Holley, who’s really experienced as a criminal defense attorney, and eager to bring in George Mgdesyan, this big, linebacker-type lawyer without nearly as much experience that she has. The whole case is about how he’s a misogynistic abuser. It’s not lost on me that, and this should be emphasized, Shawn Holley is a woman, and she’s being cast aside and obviously being told by Tory that her strategy or her ideas about his defense he doesn’t like, and he wants to go with this guy.
Tory’s team has labeled your reporting as fake news. What’s the most outlandish accusation or message you have received from a Lanez fan?
I just think it’s hilarious when people say that I must be a Roc Nation spy. It’s just so silly. I worked at McDonald’s in high school. I have a working-class background. For the most part, it’s just hollow criticism. Lanez’s post against me came at a time when I covered a story about an attorney trying to take over his case, and it was a mess in court. I had like 70,000 Twitter followers at the time, and he had 12 million Instagram followers. I just think they were embarrassed by the article and also didn’t really consider the fact that all he was really doing was just putting a bunch of attention on me.
I actually didn’t get that much backlash overall, but there was a period around his motion for a new trial where I could tell it was an organized, concerted effort. And it was vicious and crazy, but I was also just like, What do they think this is going to do?If they do break me, do they still realize that he’s not going to get released from jail?
You also have stans of your own. Have you seen the tweets about your bob?
One of my friends was like, “Are they making fun of your hair?” I don’t think they are. I need to embrace this as being cool. This is great. The last time I had my haircut, I was telling the stylist that she’s got a lot riding on this. The internet needs the bob.
Do you think the sentence was fair?
The judge definitely gave him a break from the 13 years, which is what prosecutors were asking for. After he was convicted, I asked somebody who has done a lot of cases like this what he thought Lanez would get. He said that because of the gun and the enhancements that they found, he was looking at at least double-digit time, probably close to the max, 22 years. I didn’t think he was going to get 13 years, but I didn’t think he would get less than nine or 10. It’s just everything that’s happened since then. His pretrial violations, all that, it just seemed to amplify everything.
What do you hope that people take away from this trial?
I hope people see this as just an example of how different internet life or blog life or your perception of a case from the internet comments can be from what actually is happening in the courtroom or what actually is happening in real life. I think it also says something about courtroom literacy and court literacy for the people who run the courts. The idea that this was such a high-profile case and so much interest in it, why aren’t all the court documents available online?
I just think it’s totally shameful that the L.A. Superior Court has this stuff locked down, and you have to go through all these hoops just to get public documents on the case. I wish that there was more of a reckoning within the court system and the judiciary about ways to make this stuff more accessible.
More importantly, there is a huge message about just misogyny in hip-hop culture, specifically against Black women. I’m a little uncomfortable talking about that as a white woman. I don’t want to ever talk out of my place, but the dynamics between Kelsey and Megan and everything they had to deal with and the fact that their friendship got so fractured over it… I just thought it was really sad. The fact that [some of] the hip-hop community was gassing Tory up so much. All the lies about [Megan]. There’s so much to be said about internet culture, hip-hop culture, and the way she was demonized and villainized.
But also when people say that she wasn’t even shot, part of the disinformation in that does come from the police. Some of the early reports, like from The LA Times, have something that cites anonymous people within the police department saying, “Oh, it looks like it’s consistent with being stepped on glass.” I think there’s just such a lesson in all areas of agencies about how this case was handled and how the disinformation spread.
What are you looking to do next?
There needs to be some book in here about the way violence against women is prosecuted in the social media area, or just how it’s dealt with in the social media arena. But then also I love trial reporting, being in court, bringing cases to people, and introducing them to the judicial system.
With the huge audience I’m getting, I know that the appetite is for celebrity cases. I definitely don’t want to be a paparazzi or just an entertainment reporter, but there are legitimate court cases involving celebrities that I think I can really focus on. One is Smokey Robinson, actually. He’s up in the L.A. Federal Court House. He’s being sued by his former personal manager for breach of contract.
I really want to keep out in the field, covering stuff in court, and be the eyes and ears for people.