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December 19, 2018

Buzzfeed Faces Major Setback in Defamation Defense, as Court Rules The Russian Businessman The Dossier They Printed Accused Is Not a "Public Figure"

As you probably know, a "public figure" must prove, in a defamation action, that the story about him was not merely false (which is what a private figure would need to show) but was willfully false -- that the publisher acted with "malice," meaning they either had reason to know the story was false, or acted with such reckless disregard for the truth that they could be said to not even care if it was true or not.

Buzzfeed's in a major bind, because it's a matter of public record -- I believe they've already admitted this -- that they did not spend much time trying to verify the claims made in the dossier they published. They even noted that much of what they were printing could not be verified.

MARTIN: There are still parts of the dossier that have not, at least to this point, been verified independently, even after a year of reporting and investigation on this. But you still say that this indicates that this was kind of a blockbuster. I wanted to know if you could amplify your thinking about that.

SMITH: Well, we were very clear at the time that the dossier had not been verified. And we did not present it as something that, you know, we had reported, although we had been working, as had many journalists, to stand up or knock down specific parts.

But they published it anyway.

That sounds an awful lot like "reckless disregard" to me.

And the plaintiff doesn't even have to prove that much. He just needs to prove they published a falsehood. But at least if they had prevailed in calling this businessman a public figure under the law, they would have had more wiggle room.

I suppose they'll claim that by saying the stuff they were printing could not be verified, they were offering a global warning that parts might be untrue, but I don't know if you can just print false information about someone and then say "I didn't verify this, it might not all be true" and consider yourself legally squared-away.

It also doesn't help that BuzzFeed began trying to verify the claims it published... after they'd been sued for having made them in the first place.

Print first, verify second is not any kind of standard for journalism that a court is likely to embrace.

Unless you have a real #Resistance judge.

Another defense they'll offer is a general First Amendment this-was-so-important-we-had-to-inform-the-American-people-so-you-can't-find-us-liable-for-defamation defense.

But that's a problem when you're publishing claims, apparently untrue (or at least, never verified) about a private individual. You couldn't have blacked out his name and identifying information? The idea that this is Too Important to Not Publish means that private individuals can be harmed-- and they have no legal recourse?

The one area where I think BuzzFeed had some point was this dance the media does where they basically give you a selective, edited, narrative-advancing version of something while hiding the actual source information. CNN pretends it was so much more ethical here, but it wasn't: They merely avoided defamation liability. They were still scumbags themselves.

But even if BuzzFeed wanted to air the document that the media was all talking about and hinting about, they could have digested it and edited out material that could be defamatory. They could have reported the allegations made against this guy by just paraphrasing, writing something like, "The dossier claims that a Russian businessman [whose identity BuzzFeed has chosen not to reveal] did x y and z."

I don't like the media's Whispering Campaigns masquarading as journalism either, but the solution can't be to just print a bunch of unverified, probably false claims about a private individual, either.

See John Sexton for more, including Buzzfeed Ben being told by Chuck Todd and Brian Stelter that they acted irresponsibly and "just published fake news."

And I mean-- those two? When those two call a journalistic foul, man. You done goofed, cuz.

It's time to "open those libel laws up," as a great man once said.

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posted by Ace of Spades at 05:18 PM

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