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Trump Campaign Sues New York Times for Libel


HOST: Earlier this week, the Trump campaign filed a libel suit against the New York Times. The campaign claims that an op-ed the Times published last March defamed the President. That op-ed, by former executive editor Max Frankel, said the Trump campaign had a deal with Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016… something the campaign argues the Times knew wasn’t true. Aseem Shukla reports on why the case was filed and what it might mean.


ASEEM SHUKLA: President Trump has often expressed frustration with the media.


DONALD TRUMP: (stock audio) We have a very crooked media. I’ve never seen more dishonest media. They’re bad people.


SHUKLA: He’s even campaigned on the idea of reigning the media in.


TRUMP: So we’re gonna open up those libel laws, folks, and we’re gonna have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.


SHUKLA: But the thing about libel is that it’s governed by a Supreme Court ruling from 1964 in a case where an Alabama sheriff sued the New York Times for publishing an ad that contained factual inaccuracies. That ruling made it really hard for public figures to win libel suits. That’s because of a standard called “actual malice.”


Stuart Karle teaches media law at Columbia and used to be General Counsel at the Wall Street Journal.


STUART KARLE: It basically says, if a public official wants to recover for defamation, it has to show that the journalist in this case published the statement knowing it was false--so basically lied about it-- or acted in reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.


SHUKLA: Karle doesn’t think that a court will see Max Frankel, who wrote the Times op-ed, in quite that way.


KARLE: I do not think he believed he was lying, I don’t think he was uninformed… you add those two things together, I think there’s virtually no prospect that this will meet the standard of actual malice.


SHUKLA: But Lisa George, a media economist at Hunter College, thinks that even if the Trump campaign loses in the lower courts, the case could make its way to the Supreme Court. In fact, she thinks that’s exactly what the Trump campaign is hoping for.


LISA GEORGE: I think that the case was brought with the entire objective of changing the standard at the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas has expressed an interest in revisiting the case that changed the libel rules to loosen standards on media.


SHUKLA: In other words, the campaign may hope to weaken the “actual malice” standard the Court set back in 1964.


But even if the law doesn’t change, George thinks the case has other benefits for the campaign.


GEORGE: Trump will use the lawsuit as part of his political strategy of, he made a campaign promise to kind of rein in out of line media.


SHUKLA: And she thinks getting sued might also have an upside for the Times.


GEORGE: The New York Times is going to be in the news, it will cement its position as sort of fighting a good fight.


SHUKLA: The Times gets to be a defender of the free press, just like it did in 1964.

For Columbia Radio News, I’m Aseem Shukla.

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