• Defamation: Enter Sandmann v. CNN

    January 25, 2020 // 12 Comments »

    Once again a geopolitical event — this time, the killing of an Iranian General — was falsely blown by agenda-driven journalism into ItIsWWIIIWeAreAllGonnaDieBecauseTrump and then within a handful of days we realize no, not the case. Again.

    The facts never support the media contentions, but the facts seem to matter little. The need to drive an agenda,  Orange Man Bad, controls.

    Remember how Trump will start WWIII with China over Taiwan’s inauguration phone call, Trump will start global economic war with China trade sanctions, Trump will start WWIII by withdrawing from NATO, Trump will start a wider war in Syria bombing Russian bases, Trump will start a  war moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, Trump will start WWIII pulling out of Obama’s Iran Nuclear Agreement, Trump will start WWIII with North Korea, Trump will sell out the U.S. to get peace with North Korea because he wants a cheap Nobel, Trump will start WWIII because he is Hitler, erratic, mentally ill, impulsive, isolated, Trump will ___ to distract from Mueller, Comey, impeachment, Trump will start a war over Venezuela, Trump will start a genocide of Kurds with Turkey, Trump will start a Mideast war after Iran attacked a Saudi oil facility or shot down a drone, Trump will start a civil war inside the U.S. after Charlottesville, or to stop the midterms, or to prevent the next election, or he won’t leave if he loses, Trump is a Russian asset, Trump owes Putin billions, Trump is Putin’s cockholster, Trump is a pee tape sex pervert, Trump will start a recession, Trump will trigger a depression, Trump is rich from emoluments, Trump is almost bankrupt with hidden taxes, the stock market will crash, trade wars will end global capitalism, Trump killed all the Puerto Ricans, Trump will take away health care, Trump will imprison LGBTQXYZ people, Trump will end legal abortion, Trump has America on the brink…

    One can find dozens of articles on any of the subjects above. By my count the NYT’s Paul Krugman predicted LINK a Trump recession 17 individual times, the first even before inauguration, alongside many more instances of the clear and present dangers of tax cuts, market bubbles, tariffs, and more. MSNBC’s Rachael Maddow devoted her entire show for about two years to the walls closing in on Trump, repeating “tick tock” like some modern version of the Rain Man.

    Columnist Max Boot in The Washington Post put into writing what we have all known for some time: real journalism, Jefferson’s informed citizenry and all that, is dead. The job has shifted to agenda writing, just plain made-up stuff to drive events. Boot is at least honest that he writes to drive Trump from office and overturn the 2016 election, “Much of my journalism for the past four years has been devoted to critiquing President Trump and opposing the spread of Trumpism. But no matter how many columns or sound bites I produce, he remains in office… I am left to ask if all my work has made any difference.”

    The worst agenda journalism reads like bad anti-Trump fan fiction, worse than the basement Star Wars stuff where Leia always ends up without her golden bikini. Trump is a spy. Trump digs golden showers. Turn around his jest, and if Trump saved a man’s life in the middle of Fifth Avenue Don Lemon would explain that night why that was wrong, and an existential threat to the rest of us if not Democracy itself. If it doesn’t pass even the sniff test, well, it was designed to. When writing for a fan fiction audience one simply need to feed them the raw meat they crave (naked Leia, Orange Man Bad.) Truth, subtlety, challenging thought have no place and indeed no value. That’s kind of what you expect when the goal is basement Solo pleasures, but it is now one of the drivers of the national mainstream media in America.

     

    The giveaway that journalism is near-singularly devoted to an agenda, frightening the public in service of driving Trump somehow from office, is how the mistakes are always wrong in same direction. Meanwhile none of the people who keep track of the lies Trump tells and who are demanding “fact checks” before ads are allowed to run on social media seem to spend any time on the other side of the equation. Who would accept a track record this bad from their doctor, lawyer, their nail technician (“No, seriously, cracked nails are hot this year, it was in the NYT”)? Is there any price to be paid for agenda journalism?

    Assuming credibility, professionalism, and self-respect are apparently worth about zero, the price tag for agenda journalism looks to be about $25 million. That’s what CNN is reported to have paid settling a defamation case brought by Covington High School student Nick Sandmann charging the network “maintained a well-known and easily documented biased agenda against President Donald Trump and established a history of impugning individuals perceived to be supporters of the president.” The amount is probably half what CNN spends yearly just on botox for Anderson Cooper but as Cooper’s estheticians are prone to say, it’s a start.

    Almost a year ago to the day Sandmann and his Catholic school classmates traveled to Washington, DC to join anti-abortion protests. Sandmann was photographed grinning at a Native American DC protest regular. The media with one mighty flatulent blast knew what to do. Based solely on a YouTube clip, outlets like CNN and WaPo imagined Sandmann, wearing his MAGA cap, as the distillation of everything evil, some redneck crapper from Kentucky a hatin’ women and a protestin’ them abortions and rubbing his smug grin in the face of a noble Native American POC supposedly trying to defuse a tense situation with native drumming. The drummer was also quickly (but wrongly) glorified as a Vietnam Vet.

    Blue Check Twitter suggested Sandmann be punched in the face, and veiled suggestions of mob action led to threats, Sandmann’s family temporarily run out of their home, the kid dropped from school trips, and other disciplinary action to include coerced apologies. The second wave was pearl clutching Op-Eds about what Trump has turned us into, and look, it has spread to The Children. The media implied Sandmann deserved it because of his politics. Contrast that treatment with the beatification bestowed on #Resistance kids like Greta Thunberg, and the good victims of the Parkland shooting (the Parkland kid who supports the Second Amendment meanwhile was media-doxxed out of his Harvard scholarship.)

    Not only was all of that absolutely wrong (Sandmann was never an aggressor, and alongside his peers, said nothing in return to those taunting him, even though CNN claimed they “looked like they were going to lynch” the Black Hebrew Israelites who actually started the whole thing) it wasn’t even news. Students on a field trip, with the media appointing Sandmann their symbolic oberfuhrer, were fashioned into props to fit the characterization people who wear MAGA hats are intolerant. The media cared little for the truth when they had their entire white nationalist anti-Trump agenda as they imagine it exists packaged in one handy snapshot.

    The media counts on America to forget their propaganda fails and move on. Only this time it turned out differently. Sandmann is suing a range of journalists individually, including Maggie Haberman, Ana Navarro, and Shaun King for slurs they threw at him on Twitter, and their employers for directing their massive global platforms to beat up an innocent high school kid. Included in the swath of lawsuits by Sandmann are CNN, MSNBC’s parent company, the AP, Gannett, and the Washington Post. In the words of the suit, they “brought down the full force of [their] corporate power, influence, and wealth on Nicholas by falsely attacking, vilifying, and bullying him despite the fact that he was a minor child.”

    Representative Ilhan Omar, who tweeted the boys yelled “it’s not rape if you enjoy it” when they did not, is exempt from the suit as a public office holder. “Comedian” Bill Maher, who called Sandmann a profane name on TV, also likely enjoys a legal exemption for satire. Maher topped off his coverage of the events by making a child rape joke about Sandmann, stating “I do not get what Catholic priests see in these kids.”

     

    While the many suits are pending, this month CNN independently reached a cash settlement with Sandmann, one of those we-sorta-admit-it but legally do not admit, in the words of the lawsuit, to defaming Sandmann by accusing him of “engaging in racist conduct” without properly investigating the incident. The suits contend CNN and the others would have “known the statements to be untrue had they undertaken any reasonable efforts to verify their accuracy before publication.” In other words, CNN willfully failed to commit journalism, the finding of facts, the asking of questions in lieu of packaging what was actually nothing at all into a steamy piece to fit an existing agenda.

    With a win in Sandmann’s pocket and as his cases against the other media outlets work their way through the courts, others also appear ready to challenge agenda journalism via the defamation laws. Ten more Covington high school students are now suing various media for defamation. Elsewhere, writer Peter Brimelow is suing the NYT for labeling him an “open white nationalist.” Karen McDougal, a former Playboy model who said she had an affair with Donald Trump, filed suit against Fox a month ago claiming defamation. George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, filed a defamation suit against HarperCollins, the Martin family lawyer’s publisher. Trump critic and Harvard prof Lawrence Lessig is suing the NYT, accusing them of publishing “false and defamatory” information about him. Melania is suing all sorts of outlets for defamation. Representative Devin Nunes sued CNN last month claiming the network defamed him with false reports he traveled to Vienna to meet with the Ukrainian prosecutor Joe Biden helped oust in 2016.

    Under current law, most of those suits will fail. Going forward, how powerful a weapon defamation lawsuits might prove to be against agenda journalism will depend on how flexible the courts choose to be. Historically they have given great leeway to anyone, journalist or not, who appears to libel (an untrue defamatory statement in writing) or slander (same, but orally) public figures. The idea is if you put yourself out there as an actor, or a politician, you’re expected to take a few slings and arrows and so the standards of proof are higher. This is what allows tabloids like the National Enquirer to get away with making up stories about popular figures as their basic trade. Defamation as a business practice was once upon a time what they did, and not what places like the media of record are now about.

    The major defenses against defamation are truth, or that the alleged defamatory statement was a statement of opinion. If CNN were to prove Nunes did go to Vienna as reported, that would end his suit. One woman who claims Trump raped her several decades ago is now suing him, claiming his Constitutionally-protected statement of innocence defamed her. Her suit demands he prove the truth of his denial to escape judgement. Opinion is exempt when it is truly some sort of opinion — Nunes is the worst Congressman ever — and not just when it is fudged along the likes of “This reporter’s opinion is Nunes traveled to Vienna.”

    The hope would be justice recognizes a new media environment has crawled out from the mud, one which drags innocent people onto the national stage unnecessarily and without context in a way which is unethical and exploitative. And that even public figures, never mind the voters who select them, deserve accurate, factual reporting.

    Yeah, one can hope. But in the case of CNN and Nick Sandmann, it appears the network would rather pay out a couple of million dollars then to roll the dice to see what a court would say. And hey, small world: Nick Sandmann’s attorney, Lin Wood, is the same person who successfully represented Richard Jewell in his defamation suit against CNN years ago, when the network falsely labeled him the Atlanta Olympic Park bomber.

    In a rare breath of self-examination, columnist David Brooks wrote “Donald Trump is impulse-driven, ignorant, narcissistic and intellectually dishonest. So you’d think that those of us in the anti-Trump camp would go out of our way to show we’re not like him — that we are judicious, informed, mature and reasonable. The anti-Trump echo chamber is becoming a mirror image of Trump himself — overwrought, uncalibrated and incapable of having an intelligent conversation about any complex policy problem.”

    That CNN has not made any noticeable changes in its stream of agenda journalism since the original incident a year ago, or since settling with Sandmann, suggests what they paid out is to them a reasonable price to continue to lie to the American public. Defamation settlements are just another business expense. The Founders assigned journalism a specific role to ensure that citizens would be able to carry out informed debates. Truth, they understood, is more than an ideal, it is a perspective. Yet over the last three years serious journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush to do away with Trump, not by honest persuasion but by any means necessary. Fear won out, and so objectivity is now #Collusion. Seeking facts before going viral is so 2015. The media picks on kids because they can’t get Trump. We asked for an informed citizenry and we got Mean Girls.

     

     

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    Posted in Democracy, Post-Constitution America, Trump