At Media Matters, longtime Breitbart News critic Eric Boehlert has noticed three right wing media outlets currently facing massive defamation suits, and posits that their troubles are the inevitable result of “submerged standards” in conservative news.
As Media Matters has documented for years, newsroom standards for conservative journalists leave much to be desired and outlets routinely trample over established norms of responsible behavior. But has the recklessness reached such heights, and have the attacks become so slanderous, that courts will rule against the offending media outlets? And if so, how high could the penalties run?
“Damages for every case come down to whatever the jury wants them to be,” former New York Times general counsel George Freeman tells Media Matters.
Responding to speculation that a pricey courtroom loss could drive National Review out of business, publisher Jack Fowler assured readers in January that the magazine has libel insurance to cover damages, although he conceded “our insurance does not cover all the costs related to the suit.” But even if the three outlets avoid a big jury loss, simply paying the legal fees becomes tantamount. “The costs can be absolutely staggering,” says Robert Drechsel, professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in media law.
We know quite a bit around here about “submerged standards” that lead to defamation lawsuits, so we have been paying close attention to these cases. In fact, we helped break the news about Glenn Beck’s legal troubles with Abdulrahman Alharbi last Monday, and first wrote about climate scientist Michael Mann’s lawsuit against National Review here last September. We suggest Mr. Boehlert should add Shirley Sherrod’s ongoing libel case against Breitbart News, and Brett Kimberlin’s state and federal lawsuits against the right wing blogs that spent two years accusing him of imaginary terrorism, to his list. Like Alharbi, the Massachusetts man who was injured in the Boston Marathon blasts, Mr. Kimberlin is suing Glenn Beck — alongside serial fabricator James O’Keefe, Michelle Malkin’s Twitchy.com, the American Spectator, Ace of Spades, and others.
By the time Mr. Kimberlin finally took action against these defendants, the entire right wing blogosphere had become an echo chamber blasting malicious libels about him, including a perjured rape accusation. However, something more sinister than a mere lack of standards was to blame. Many defendants have expressed a malevolent desire to demonize and destroy Mr. Kimberlin that goes far beyond mere political differences or libel. A similar disturbing streak shows up in attacks on Michael Mann, and low standards alone do not explain the sheer hatred and violent rhetoric directed at him.
We suggest that Mr. Boehlert should look past the issue of reduced standards in right wing newsrooms to examine the question of whether right wing media personalities have reduced filters. What role does online disinhibition play, and how much of a factor is the linkbait-driven trend towards extreme points of view? Is conservative media just angrier than mainstream journalism? These are good questions to consider.
Remember, Mr. Beck was released from Fox News because he chafed at even the minimal self-editing expected of an anchor on Roger Ailes’s network. Beck’s fact-free defamation of Alharbi resembles the uncritical platform that Beck gave Aaron Walker and John Patrick Frey to air their proof-free allegations about Kimberlin. Looking back now, we can see a preview of those events in the way that Beck smeared ACORN, which he unabashedly hated and wanted to destroy. Can Beck’s contempt for his perceived enemies ever be softened by any editor? We doubt it. The primary reason Beck chose to become an internet ‘star,’ independent of any network, was to escape the censorious straitjacket of standards and practices so he could say whatever he thinks…or rather, whatever he feels. Beck felt that Alharbi and Kimberlin were evil, and then gave vent to those feelings, which do not require evidence and are not journalism. They are hate speech.