Thursday, October 15, 2009

If Your Mother Says She Loves You, Check It Out

Back in The Day when I was in journalism school (Northwestern University, M.S.J., ’77) we had a saying, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” This was part of an effort to instill in us would-be journalists a healthy skepticism. We were taught to check out every fact and if it couldn't be verified, leave it out of the story.

Apparently that is no longer the case.

I’m referring specifically to the media’s coverage of Rush Limbaugh and his attempt as a minority party of a consortium to purchase the St. Louis Rams National Football League team.

As soon as the story of Limbaugh’s interest in the team broke, stories surfaced in the media about Limbaugh’s racist statements on his radio show, such as praising slavery and saying Martin Luther King’s assassin James Earl Ray deserved a medal.

The problem is that Limbaugh never said any of these things. He wasn’t misquoted or taken out of context; he simply never said them. The most cursory check would have revealed the untruth of these statements.

Yet, the mainstream media, not to mention left-wing bloggers, accepted these outrageous allegations as Gospel truth.

In the wake of the firestorm created by these false accusations, the consortium asked Limbaugh to withdraw his offer. He refused. The consortium fired him.

Another subject covered in journalism school was libel law. One aspect of libel is what’s known as the public figure doctrine. That means that it’s not enough to demonstrate that the story was untrue, malice had to be demonstrated as well as damage.

Rush Limbaugh is certainly a public figure.

So, can he demonstrate malice?

In this context, malice means either knowing that the information was untrue or that the reporter displayed careless and reckless disregard for the truth.

For example, if I were to report a story from the Associated Press that later turned out to be untrue, I'd be protected from libel because I would have every reason as a professional journalist to assume an AP story was accurate. But if I us to cite such an unreliable source as the neighborhood gossip, Wikipedia or someone with a history of libel such as Al Sharpton, I’d be in serious trouble.

But this doesn’t prove libel against a public figure. It’s not enough to demonstrate that the story was maliciously untrue, the libeled party must also show loss.

Rush lost the St. Louis Rams

I’m a “recovering journalist,” not a lawyer. I can’t speak to what will happen should Limbaugh seek judicial relief.

But I will say from what I know as a journalist, some journalistic careers will be ended by this shameful episode.

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