A small group of superrich Americans — the president-elect among them — has laid the groundwork for an unprecedented legal assault on the media. Can they succeed?
In 2005, Tim O’Brien, then a financial reporter at The New York Times, published the book “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.” O’Brien talked to sources with an up-close view of Donald J. Trump’s finances, who concluded that the real-estate developer’s net worth was $150 million to $250 million, rather than the $2 billion to $5 billion Trump had variously claimed. Trump, who had courted O’Brien by taking him for rides in his Ferrari and private jet, sued O’Brien for libel…
Of course the case was dismissed. That is, Trump lost. He called O’Brien “a wack job” on the “Today” show–which, by the way, is defamation. (Nothing in the article suggests that O’Brien sued Trump. Oh darn. Given how many journalists Trump mouthed off at during the campaign, I’d guess his accusations do not damage anyone’s reputation. Probably the opposite.)
But Trump doesn’t sue people to win. Oh no:
Trump’s suit against O’Brien is one of seven forays President-elect Trump and his companies have made as libel plaintiffs. He won only once, when a defendant failed to appear. But the standard measure — defending his reputation and achieving victory in court — isn’t how Trump says he thinks about his investment. “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more,” he told The Washington Post in March about the hefty sum he spent on the case against O’Brien. “I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.”
Trump was wrong: Warner Books spent less than he did, and O’Brien paid nothing. But that doesn’t make Trump’s central idea any less jarring: that libel law can be a tool of revenge.
Emily Bazelon, who wrote this article, is a lawyer and an excellent writer. Although my extracts involve Trump in particular, the focus of the article–as you can see in the link name–is the potential threat to a free press by very rich people who sue for vengeance.
I noticed something interesting, though. With all the public criticism of the Times over its campaign coverage–from both sides of the political spectrum–its value as a reliable news source is apparently undeniable: some of the public on-line comments criticized the Times for putting itself, as a potential victim of billionaire-financed and produced lawsuits, in the same category as Gawker and Rolling Stone, since both organizations were sued for defamation and lost–correctly, in the opinion of several commenters, as well as the courts.
Commenters said the Times rides high above the reputations of Gawker and Rolling Stone.
But I certainly understand and shiver in empathy at the concern that a demonstrably litigious Trump and his equally litigious pals are dangerous to our free press.