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Glenn Beck, National Review and NY Post Might be Forced to Pay Huge Defamation Damages in Court

Three big right-wing publications are finally being taken to task.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Strombo; Screenshot / YouTube.com

 

Libel and slander cases are increasingly viewed as long-shot legal propositions that aren't worth the effort required to see the cases to completion only to suffer defeat. But three high-profile libel suits against media organizations are bucking that trend and making their way through the legal system. Two of them have already cleared steep judicial hurdles, opening the way for the discovery phase and possible jury trials. All involve well-know conservative media defendants: National Review, the New York Post and Glenn Beck's The Blaze.

As Media Matters has documented for years, newsroom standards for conservative journalists leave much to be desired and outlets routinely trample over established norms of responsible behavior. But has the recklessness reached such heights, and have the attacks become so slanderous, that courts will rule against the offending media outlets? And if so, how high could the penalties run?

"Damages for every case come down to whatever the jury wants them to be," former New York Times general counsel George Freeman tells Media Matters.

Responding to speculation that a pricey courtroom loss could drive National Review out of business, publisher Jack Fowler assured readers in January that the magazine has libel insurance to cover damages, although he conceded "our insurance does not cover all the costs related to the suit." But even if the three outlets avoid a big jury loss, simply paying the legal fees becomes tantamount. "The costs can be absolutely staggering," says Robert Drechsel, professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in media law.

Not surprisingly, the three headline-making suits revolve around hot-button issues for the right-wing media: last year's Boston Marathon terror bombing case, which led to the suits against the New York Post and Beck, and the political jousting over climate change, which pits National Review versus Penn State meteorology professor Michael Mann.

"All three are plausible libels suits," says Drechsel.

Three days after the Boston terror blast, Yassine Zaimi and Salaheddin Barhoum were depicted as "BAG MEN" in a full-page color photo on the cover of The New York Post. The sub-heading on the April 18, 2013, cover photo read: "Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon." Inside, the Post published another photo of the men with red circles around their faces.

New York Post's Boston Bombing "BAG MEN" Cover

It turned out that Barhoum was a 16-year-old high school runner and Zaimi is a running coach. Neither man had any connection to the terrorist plot. In response, the men sued Rupert Murdoch's paper, accusing it of libel, negligent infliction of emotional distress, and invasion of the men's privacy.

"The front page would lead a reasonable reader to believe that plaintiffs had bombs in their bags, that they were involved in causing the Boston Marathon bombing," according to the complaint. The "Bag Men" debacle, and especially how the Post targeted two private citizens, was a libel case "waiting to happen," says former Times attorney Freeman.

Last month, Massachusetts Superior Court Judge Judith Fabricant ruled the case could proceed, writing:

In the court's view, a reasonable reader could construe the publication as expressly saying that law enforcement personnel were seeking not only to identify the plaintiffs, but also to find them, and as implying that the plaintiffs were the bombers, or at least investigators so suspected.

Fabricant also wrote:

The cover headline 'BAG ME'" in large capital letters across a photograph of the plaintiffs carrying bags, could fairly have been understood to imply that their bags were the ones that had transported the bombs.