There was a neat story today about Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s dislike of the landmark Times v Sullivan decision. That decision decreed that public figures can only sue a reporter for libel if they can prove the reporter knew his story was false, or showed a reckless disregard for whether it was false or not. That rule protects reporters, newspapers, TV news, all the media. Scalia, anchor man for the conservative majority on our highest court, thinks the rule is too easy on reporters: he says it’s too easy for the media to launch dishonest attacks against public figures and get away with it. “You can libel public figures at will, so long as somebody told you something — some reliable person — told you the lie that you then publicized to the whole world”, Scalia complained.
I hope Scalia gets his way on this, in the Supreme Court.
It is true that if news outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and CBS all must be able to defend the accuracy of their criticisms of politicians in court, it will have a stifling effect on political journalism.
However, if Scalia gets his way, all of conservative media goes off the air. Fox would have to give up its core business, dishonest smear attacks against Obama and Pelosi and the rest, so they couldn’t function; actually Rupert Murdoch’s entire empire, including the Wall Street Journal, would be crippled. Rush Limbaugh’s entire stock in trade is libel and slander, so he would be forced to get rid of his entire program, pretty much. World Net Daily’s two-year jihad claiming Obama is a foreigner never would have happened. Drudge would be in jail. Breitbart would have died in jail.
O, brave new world!
None of these people know how to do real journalistic homework, the kind that keeps you out of legal and ethical trouble: research, legwork, facts, logic, analysis, accountability, listening to people who disagree with you and pose inconvenient truths. So the Washington Times and the Washington Examiner would stumble off to the elephant’s graveyard. Anne Coulter and Glenn Beck would probably be institutionalized, and George Will and Charles Krauthammer would be rolled off to some retirement home like those two crazy old men in the balcony on the Muppets. All those people who can’t do their jobs without resorting to dishonest attacks and fallacies, Ingraham, Malkin, David Brooks, Erickson, O’Reilly, Peggy Noonan, all forced to stop pretending to be journalists, going off to make infomercials. Add Dick Morris, who even today is using his razor-sharp insight to try to teach the rest of us what happened in the 2012 election. Rightwing think tanks like the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute would go out of business because no reporter could afford to quote them anymore, and with their demise, America would wave goodbye to the illusion that conservatism is an actual philosophy with any intellectual heft.
As for the others, the dirty fact that Republicans don’t want you to know is that there is no equivalency between rightwing media and the rest of the press. People like MSNBC and Kos, under constant attack from the right, are careful about their fact-checking, in a way that Fox will never be. Rachel Maddow, an absolute witch on research and sniffing out facts, once fact-checked herself on the air, on a story about Spongebob Squarepants. So the non-crazy media would be able to adjust to the “Scalia rule” just fine.
The press would, in fact, go back to doing their job the way they used to, before Reagan, Bush and the Republicans decided for us that facts, logic, science and reality no longer mattered. Fact-checking would become a real profession again. Back in the day, Walter Cronkite or David Brinkley could go on television and call Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon liars, and cripple their careers. What if a new Cronkite could do the same to Boehner, McConnell, McCain, Romney, Ryan, Gingrich? The threat alone would force Republicans to watch their words.
But that’s the real press, in the sane world. Meanwhile, with Fox and Rush and the gang going off the air, we would no longer have rightwing whackaloons quoting Drudge and Sean all over the internet, tormenting their relatives at Thanksgiving with birth-certificate conspiracy theories, boring their football buddies with “the UN is coming to take your guns”. Because the rightwing internet outlets which propagate all that garbage would mostly be gone – that in itself might speed up the internet by 100 percent, and about 90 decibels of daily noise pollution would disappear. Then the only media we’d have left, would be sane, honest media. Not perfect, but honest.
That’s just the beginning. Just as the “Scalia rule” would shut down dishonest rightwing reporters, it would also shut down dishonest rightwing politicians too. Because reporters could no longer listen to someone like Mitt Romney accusing Obama of stealing money from Medicare, and then just run Romney’s quote on the air without comment. They would be forced to point out that Romney lied, or else get sued by Obama.
Imagine the 2012 election with the Scalia rule. Every time Romney and Ryan lied about Medicare, or Obamacare, or Benghazi, or jobs, or anything else, the media would practically be required to bust them for it, in public. During Romney’s presidential debates, he lied more than eighty times, and most of the time he was defaming Democrats: the media would have been forced to bust him for every one of those lies, because he lied on their broadcast air. Candy Crowley publicly busted Romney for one of those debate lies, and crippled his campaign: imagine that impact multiplied by eighty. Likewise if we had had the Scalia rule in 2010, we’d have the public option in Obamacare now, and we’d still have a Democratic House with Pelosi in charge, because all the lies about death panels and dead Grandmas would have been shot down.
With the Scalia rule, we could have a sane, honest country, in which Republican lies are stillborn. So without the GOP Lie Machine, how does the Republican party fill the heads of their followers with lies and hate and fear, so they can herd them to the polls every two years? If the GOP can no longer win with lies, what can they win with? Their shrinking pool of sick old white men and tinfoil paranoids? Their policies? Gutting Social Security and Medicare, vote suppression, filibusters, letting corporations and the rich enslave us all? Treating women and minorities and gays and workers and the sick and the poor and students like cattle, and then expressing surprise that they all vote Blue?
I wonder if we can convince the liberal Justices to take a dive, to go along with Scalia on this one.