Friday, June 17, 2016

Thiel, Trump, and the Billionaires' Attack on the Fourth Estate

Thiel, Trump, and the Billionaires' Attack on the Fourth Estate | Mother Jones

It's about whether people with massive resources get to decide what media are allowed to publish—rather than, say, the courts, or Congress, or you. Thiel, a renowned libertarian, evidently believes that private individuals should exercise a power the founders considered so significant the they prohibited government from using it in the very first amendment to the Constitution.

Trump also wants to change libel laws "so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money." (Never mind that libel law is already designed to do just that—punish those who publish false and defamatory information.)

The list goes on. Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul, sued John L. Smith, a columnist at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, driving him into bankruptcy at a  time when his young daughter struggled with brain cancer. (One of the few things Smith was able to hang on to was his job at the paper—until Adelsonbought the Review-Journal late last year, and management decreed that Smith could no longer cover Adelson.)

And then there’s Frank VanderSloot, the dark-money billionaire who spent nearly three years going after Mother Jones for covering his anti-LGBT rights activism, forcing us to spend a huge amount of time and money to defend ourselves. (More about the details of that case here.) And just in case anyone missed the point, after being handed a resounding loss by a local Idaho judge, VanderSloot announced that he was pledging $1 million to a fund to underwrite people who wanted to sue Mother Jones, or other elements of the "liberal media." We have been warned.

For the likes of VanderSloot, Adelson, Thiel, and Trump, the courts have become an avenue not so much for vindication, but for exacting a price. Make a news organization spend enough time and cash ($600,000 in our case, in addition to the $2 million our insurance company had to pony up), and you're going to have an effect—on that newsroom, and many others. People will ask themselves, in private if not in public: Do we really need to publish this fact that we know is true? Or should we hold back, knowing that being correct doesn’t protect us from being dragged into court?

As Talking Points Memo’s Josh Marshall wrote apropos the Thiel revelations,
If the extremely wealthy, under a veil [of] secrecy, can destroy publications they want to silence, that's a far bigger threat to freedom of the press than most of the things we commonly worry about on that front. If this is the new weapon in the arsenal of the super rich, few publications will have the resources or the death wish to scrutinize them closely.
Legally, what we fought over was what, precisely, the terms "bashing" and "outing" meant in the context of our article. (Read the decision for yourself) But make no mistake: This was not a dispute over a few words. It was a push, by a superrich businessman and donor, to wipe out news coverage that he disapproved of. Had he been successful, it would have been a chilling indicator that the 0.01 percent can control not only the financing of political campaigns, but also media coverage of those campaigns.

They filed the suit in Bonneville County, Idaho, and asked for damages of up to $74,999—exactly $1 under the amount at which the lawsuit could have been removed to federal court. That ensured the case would be decided by jurors from the community where his company is the biggest employer and the sponsor of everything from the minor league ballpark to the Fourth of July fireworks.

Since then, Mother Jones and our insurance company have had to spend at least $2.5 million defending ourselves. That's money we can't get back, since Idaho doesn't have an anti-SLAPP statute that might open the door for recovering attorney's fees in a case like this. We also paid for the defense of Zuckerman, whom VanderSloot sued halfway through the case for talking to Rachel Maddow about his experience. (VanderSloot did not sue MSNBC or its deep-pocketed parent company, Comcast. Make of that what you will.)

Here's a moment that gives you a sense of what it was like. At one point, Zuckerman was subjected to roughly 10 hours of grilling by VanderSloot's lawyers about every detail of the controversy in Idaho Falls, including the breakup with his boyfriend of five years. (VanderSloot also threatened to sue the ex-boyfriend, backing off only after he recanted statements he'd made about the Boy Scouts episode.) As the lawyers kept probing, Zuckerman broke down and cried as he testified that the time after the ads appeared was one of the darkest periods of his life. VanderSloot, who had flown to Portland for the occasion, sternly looked on. (His lawsuit against Zuckerman is ongoing.)

And that wasn't the end of it. VanderSloot's legal team subpoenaed the Obama campaign, which had run ads naming him as a major Republican donor. Apparently they believed we had somehow fed the campaign that information—never mind that our article, and the Federal Election Commission data that prompted it—was on the internet for anyone to read.

When officials from the Obama campaign refused to turn over their records—offering to confirm under oath that there had been no communication between them and Mother Jones—VanderSloot's lawyers dragged them into court, resulting in the spectacle of a major GOP donor seeking access to the Democratic campaign's emails. His lawyers did the same thing to a political researcher who had gathered information on VanderSloot and who also had no connection to Mother Jones.

This kind of legal onslaught is enormously taxing. Last spring, Lowell Bergman, the legendary 60 Minutes producer (whose story of exposing Big Tobacco was chronicled in the Oscar-nominated film The Insider), talked about a "chill in the air" as investigative reporters confront billionaires who can hurt a news organization profoundly whether or not they win in court: "There are individuals and institutions with very deep pockets and unaccountable private power who don't like the way we report. One example is a case involving Mother Jones…A superrich plaintiff is spending millions of dollars while he bleeds the magazine and ties up its staff."

Litigation like this, Bergman said, is "being used to tame the press, to cause publishers and broadcasters to decide whether to stand up or stand down, to self-censor."

Over the past three years, we've had to face that decision over and over again. Should we just cave in—retract our article or let VanderSloot get a judgment against us—and make this all go away? It wasn't an easy choice, but we decided to fight back. Because it's not just about us. It's about everyone who relies on Mother Jones to report the facts as we find them. It's about the Fourth Estate's check on those who would use their outsized influence and ability to finance political campaigns to control the direction of the country. It's about making sure that in a time when media is always under pressure to buckle to politicians or big-money interests, you can trust that someone will stand up and go after the truth.

And it's about one more thing. Just a few years ago, no one thought that America could move so far, so fast, toward respecting the rights of gays and lesbians. No one thought that by 2015 same-sex couples would have a constitutional right to marry or, for that matter, that the Boy Scouts would rescind their ban against gay troop leaders and the Mormon Church would back them up. That happened because a lot of people stood up to threats and discrimination. They came out to their families and communities. They declared their love for everyone to see. They didn't let themselves be intimidated. Nor will we.

Postscript: In her decision Tuesday, the district court judge found in our favor on every single claim VanderSloot had made. She also included a passage expressing her own opinion of Mother Jones, and of political news coverage in general. For his part, Vandersloot issued a statement saying he had been "absolutely vindicated" and announced that he was setting up a $1 million fund to pay the legal expenses of people wanting to sue Mother Jones or other members of the "liberal press." We'll leave it with the reaction from our lawyer, James Chadwick: This was "a little like the LA Clippers claiming they won the NBA Finals. I think everyone can see what's going on here." from: http://www.motherjones.com/media/2015/10/mother-jones-vandersloot-melaleuca-lawsuit 

No comments: