DANIEL VAUGHAN: Holding the news media accountable requires lawsuits

October 7, 2019

It has become increasingly clear that there’s a growing divide in how we get news. On one hand, there’s the typical journalistic reporting of events, including interviews with sources both on — and off — the record. This kind of reporting can have a liberal bias; we’ve known that for decades, and I’ve written more than my fair share of columns talking about that bias.

But journalism has taken an extra step in the last few years, going beyond a mere preference to outright partisan hit jobs that are not meant to inform, but to inflict pain and destruction on the side that the reporter dislikes. This kind of journalism takes the lessons of progressivism’s social media cancel culture, weaponizes it in the form of news reporting, and uses it to destroy the left’s enemies — no matter how much good their victim has done.

It’s headhunting; the more hits a journalist can claim, the more they advance both their career and their political influence. It’s the reporting popularized in politics by the far-left group Media Matters for America, or in pop culture, by the now-defunct Gawker Media.

This headhunting style of reporting has been on my mind lately because of the absolutely awful hit job performed by The Des Moines Register, which, as you may know by now, employed a journalist who spent his time “performing background” on Carson King.

King raised millions for a children’s hospital after a sign he made went viral after getting shown on ESPN’s College GameDay. It was the type of story that was so heartwarming, it reminded us all of the lovingkindness humans can show to one another.

King’s sin was that he owned a Twitter account as a teenager, and enjoyed sharing jokes he heard from shock comic Daniel Tosh. The Register‘s journalist went back seven years — seven years — looking for any bad tweets to destroy this man — just because he had 15 minutes of fame in a viral internet moment.

That’s not background. That’s headhunting.

The Register ended up issuing a long explanation and firing the journalist involved — primarily because the reporter had tweeted racist remarks and jokes himself. He lost his job to the very crowd he tried to incite against King.

But while I’m not going to shed any tears over the journalist losing his job over an unfortunate trend in journalism, it’s the wrong lesson for the news media to learn. The point isn’t to fire people — it’s to stop this cancel culture that desires to destroy everyone, no matter what they do.

Bloomberg Law, once highly regarded among lawyers for its in-depth reporting and timely research, has dipped into this, too. They had one of their reporters write a smear piece against a new Trump administration official, Leif Olson.

What was Olson’s great sin? He mocked the alt-right in Facebook posts, which Bloomberg Law journalist Benjamin Penn twisted into a piece of support for Jew-hating alt-right extremists.

When everyone pointed out to Bloomberg Law that they had made a severe false allegation, they refused to back down. Olson was forced to step down a moment before getting reinstated when everyone realized it was a partisan hit job with absolutely no evidence supporting it.

Only this past week did Bloomberg Law issue a retraction after lawyer Ted Frank filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which gained him access to the emails Penn had sent the Labor Department that were falsely edited.

If this is the new journalism — and there are countless more examples you could find on both sides of the political aisle — then its time to start pushing back and punishing news organizations that are falsely smearing individuals. Gawker Media got shut down when it got proven in court they defamed Hulk Hogan, and he won a $140 million verdict against them for trying to destroy his reputation (they later settled for $31 million).

It’s clear at this point that news organizations won’t respond to repeated demands by pundits and the public-at-large to stop trying to destroy individuals who espouse certain beliefs or inventing cancel culture mobs out of thin air to attempt to destroy a person. Our culture is not sustainable if the media is solely focused on partisan smear jobs and walking the line of defamation to score clicks and partisan points in the culture war.

To that end, people like Olson need to start suing news organizations. These places already run on thin margins, and bringing real legal threats will make these outlets think twice about trying to destroy people.

Reporting on news, and negative things about people when it’s newsworthy, is important — and no one is saying otherwise. But weaponizing news organizations into political defamation machines is beyond what is wanted by society, or even allowed by law.

Successfully litigating lawsuits will be an appropriate check against an industry that has lost its moorings. Holding the news media accountable is a good thing — not a bad one.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.