Making it easier for public figures to sue news media outlets for libel might sound like a good idea, especially if the public figure is someone we like and we think criticism is unfair, but it would be unconstitutional and undermine our democracy.
Florida Gov. Ron Desantis, an undeclared candidate for president in 2024, wants to ease libel litigation with a state law. A 1964 U.S. Supreme Court case, Times v. Sullivan, established that public officials must prove actual malice: knowledge that it was false or a reckless disregard of whether it was false.
Public officials must live with the risks that come with “a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open…,” the court said.
The news media is an easy target in our politically divided nation. President Donald Trump made a living blasting “fake news.” For its part, the news business needs to do some self-examination.
A recent Gallup Poll said 29 percent of people who were surveyed had little trust in news media reporting, and 34 percent “none at all.”
I despise the term “news media.” It lumps every journalist into the same basket. There’s a vast difference between the New York Times and the New York Post, CNN and Fox.
Forget about trying to weigh different opinions. People go to a variety of websites that reinforce their views. The Pew Research Center recently studied what it calls “alternative social media” sites that “have small, largely Republican audiences; prominent accounts tend to emphasize right-leaning identities and religious and patriotic values.”
Consumers feel a sense of community and view them as “havens of free speech,” researchers said.
In Florida, the Orlando Sentinel last year discovered documents that showed that the governor’s office wants to make the definition of malice “a matter of state law,” according to an article in USA Today.
Among the recommendations is declaring that anonymous sources are presumed to be false.
Anonymous sources are overused sometimes, especially in Washington. Every journalist knows that named sources appear to be more credible, but sources don’t want to lose their jobs.
It is not as if the government and high-profile corporations are defenseless. They employ armies of public relations flacks to man their presses and websites.
The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees a free press because it is supposed to be a watchdog, not a lapdog of fat cats.
Are there reasons for public distrust of some media outlets? Certainly, especially when you turn on TV news you see former White House officials sitting behind a news desk.
Then, there is just plain old credibility. Is it better to be accurate or first? Unfortunately, not every outlet seems to grasp that concept.
Do they all try to get both sides of the story?
The public perception may be that journalists are free to attack politicians because they are protected by the malice provision in Times v. Sullivan. It does not make them libel-proof, however. Reporters are supposed to check and double check, be fair and balanced and speak and print the truth.
Are they perfect? Hardly, we work under pressure-cooker deadlines with fewer and fewer editors to check our work.
I once worked for an editor who said, “Doctors bury their mistakes. We put ours on the front page. Credibility is all we’ve got.”
Debate, real, honest debate, and informed decisions are disappearing fast enough without tipping the balance in favor of politicians.