How media get away with libel

 

How media get away with libel

 

Date: October 22, 2009
by: Thomas Sowell

 
 

To sue or not to sue?

That is the question.

After racist statements were made up out of thin air and then attributed to Rush Limbaugh, these were the options he had.

It is easy for me to understand that these are not simple choices. I have faced those options as well.

Recently, there have been several columns made up by others and put on the Internet with my name on them. The things said in those bogus columns have nothing in common with anything that I have said, in my columns, in my books or anywhere else.

Years ago, CBS reporter Lem Tucker said in a broadcast on Oct. 13, 1981, that my views “seem to place him in the school that believes that maybe most blacks are genetically inferior to white people.”

Anyone interested in the facts could have discovered that I had argued directly against this idea in a number of writings, including a feature article in the New York Times Magazine on March 27, 1977.

An attorney I did not know, but who had read my writings and knew that what was insinuated in that broadcast was totally false, offered to represent me in a lawsuit against CBS. That was when I faced the kind of dilemma that Rush Limbaugh faces now.

When someone is considered to be a “public figure” — and Rush Limbaugh is certainly that — the Supreme Court has narrowed the grounds on which that public figure can sue for libel, to the point where even the most blatant lie can often go unpunished.

Worse yet, there may be millions of people who never heard the original lie but who will hear it repeated in the media as a result of news stories about the lawsuit. And when those who committed character assassination are let off the hook on a technicality, they can claim “vindication,” as if what they said was true.

The question facing any public figure who has been the target of character assassination in the media is: Is it worth investing a large amount of time in a process that can make you worse off by spreading the very lie that you are suing to stop?

The down side of not suing is that it allows the lie to continue to be repeated in the media, with later repetitions being justified in terms of “just reporting” what someone else said.

No one can resolve this dilemma for someone else. My decision in 1981 was that I had too many other things to do for me to go into the exhausting and time-consuming process of suing CBS, with such dicey odds in the courts.

Every situation is different, so whether Rush Limbaugh should sue is a question that only he can answer.
The question for the media to answer is: Are lies to go unchallenged when they are lies against someone you disagree with? Worse yet, are they to be excused, rationalized or even repeated?

Already there are people on television saying that, although Limbaugh didn’t actually say the things that have been attributed to him, he has said other things that they choose to call “racist.”

If those other things really are racist, why don’t they quote them, instead of something that was made up out of whole cloth?

The Rush Limbaugh show has, after all, been broadcast for many years, three hours a day. There are thousands of hours of those broadcasts that people can go back through to look for things to quote.

If critics can’t find anything racist in all that material, why should an outright lie about what the man said be given a pass?

As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, you are entitled to your own opinion but not to your own facts.

Ultimately, this is not about Rush Limbaugh or anybody else who is smeared with impunity. It is about the whole climate in which issues are discussed.

Without a range of opposing opinions being available to the public, the basic concept of a self-governing democracy is a mockery. If views that some people don’t like can be silenced or discredited by character assassination, the whole country loses.

The courts should not be the only line of defense. Common decency should be the first line of defense, so that people who smear others will pay a price in the outrage that their lies should provoke, even among decent people who do not agree with the target of their smears.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

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