Donald Trump said today, “I’m gonna open up our libel laws, so when they write purposely negative and horrible, false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money.” The specific media outlets he mentioned were the New York Times and The Washington Post.
The first thing to understand is that under the landmark Supreme Court case of New York Times vs. Sullivan, it was determined that news organizations could be found liable when they deliberately publish false information. The specific standard is “actual malice.” So if Mr. Trump wants to address media organizations that “write purposely negative and horrible, false articles” then the law is already established as to his rights to do that.
But we all know that Mr. Trump isn’t interested in legalities in this case. He is clearly just trying to intimidate news organizations and bully them in providing more positive coverage of him and his candidacy for President. He should pick a different target. Newspapers have dealt with more intimidating figures than Mr. Trump.
Newspapers, actually, have a long, long history of responsibly speaking truth in the face of great power. One could think of Watergate or the Oscar-nominated movie “Spotlight” for some better-known examples. Throughout history, those in power have complained about newspaper reporting when it didn’t meet their agenda and the number of instances where the reporting has been found to be on target has vastly out-weighed any circumstances where it wasn’t. The fact is that our society relies upon the newspaper industry to be a consistent, challenging voice to the wealthy and powerful — and newspapers have a long history of carrying out that mandate with care and a deep sense of responsibility.
Newspapers have successfully stood-up to sitting Presidents, vast religious organizations, governors, mayors and immensely powerful corporations, among many others. If Mr. Trump wants to try to bully news organizations into providing reporting that he likes, then he will have to do a whole lot better than making weak, misguided promises about changes to a law that aren’t needed in the first place.
David Chavern is former President & CEO of the News/Media Alliance. Chavern has 30 years of experience in executive strategic and operational roles. Prior to the Alliance, he completed a decade-long tenure at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.