Thursday, February 10, 2011

The American Prospect's proposal to stifle press freedom

I think a lot of good work comes out of The American Prospect, but holy cow is this a bad idea:

Because of the important role the press is supposed to play in democracy, the courts have made it virtually impossible for those misrepresented in the press to win a defamation lawsuit. On one hand, this deference has created a free and vibrant press, uninhibited by fear of retaliation. But there's a flip side: With no accountability, false stories crowd out the truth, end up misleading the public, and leave victims without recourse. Freedom of the press, it turns out, often amounts to the freedom to deceive. Given that outright partisanship increasingly crosses the line into pure falsehood, shouldn't it be easier to sue?

The Prospect's Pema Levy proposes that a journalistic code of ethics be established—she doesn't say by whom, but I presume the government—which would create a standard of "substantial truthfulness" that could then be used by juries when the lawsuits inevitably come.

The problem with the proposal is that we have substantial evidence that making it easy to sue journalists doesn't do much to make them more truthful—instead, it makes it harder for them to actually report controversial truths. Look no further than the United Kingdom, where journalists get sued for reports that defendants merely don't like. The result is that U.S. publications with international readerships are routinely sued in Great Britain for reports that would be laughed out of court here.

Levy is right that it is sometimes more difficult to get the truth out once a lie has been established. I'm not sure how you solve that. But her proposal seems more likely to stifle the truth than to help it blossom. The process is messy and ugly at times, but it beats the alternative.

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