Showing posts with label misinformation. Show all posts
Showing posts with label misinformation. Show all posts

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Dominion v. Fox News evidences 'actual malice,' also shows how standard has fueled misinformation

(UPDATE, April 18, at 5:17 p.m.: NBC News reported a half hour ago that Dominion and Fox News reached a $787.5m settlement.)

CBS Sunday Morning did a nice piece this week on Dominion v. Fox News and the long heralded, but ever more evidently problematic, "actual malice" standard.

The piece explains the N.Y. Times v. Sullivan (U.S. 1964) "actual malice" standard in public-figure-plaintiff defamation cases such as Dominion, and how the standard is exceptionally provable upon the extraordinary evidence Dominion uncovered about Fox personalities' duplicity in knowingly professing misinformation.

Many a media pundit has made the observation on the seeming provability of actual malice in the case. CBS's voice for the point is that of Lee Levine, a highly regarded, now retired attorney who represented mass media companies in famous cases before the federal courts. In the Sunday segment, Levine says something along the lines of rarely if ever having seen an actual malice case he could believe in before now.

With Stephen Wermiel, Levine wrote a book, Progeny, about the "fight to preserve the legacy of ... Sullivan."  It's a good book on its merits. At the same time, its rhetoric and thesis well serve to bolster the social and economic power of the mass media business establishment.

As on CBS, Levine and lawyers like him often are held up as standard bearers for the First Amendment. But the corporations they represent are hardly freedom fighters in the romantic tradition of the lone pamphleteer.

I've long opposed Sullivan as a matter of constitutional fidelity or First Amendment imperative. It takes ill account of competing values, such as the right of personal reputation that has caused other western-democratic jurisdictions, such as Canada and Europe, to reject the standard as too stringent. As internet democratization has made it easier for ordinary people to be devastated by reputational harm, Sullivan has become ever more indefensible.

Dominion ought not be regarded as the rare exception that proves the rule. The plaintiff-company is able to make its case only because, to date, it has been sufficiently determined and well resourced to get over the many hurdles, such as anti-SLAPP statutes, that usually shield mass media from accountability. Most defamation plaintiffs, if they sue at all, see their cases dismissed without the benefit of discovery.

Dominion ought instead be taken as evidence in the mounting case that Sullivan has been a powerful cause of our misinformation crisis.

Monday, July 11, 2022

Should mass media audiences have right to know whether content is fact or opinion?

Political protestor in 2012
(photo by Gabriel Saldaña CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr)
To protect the civil rights of the audience, radio and television providers in Mexico may be compelled to distinguish between fact and opinion, a minister of the First Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ruled in November 2021.

The decision by Minister Juan Luis González Alcántara Carrancá struck down a federal telecommunication reform that repealed the fact-opinion distinction, holding that the repeal violated the right of the audience to know the nature of the content it is receiving. (More at Observacom en español.)

It remains to be seen whether the minister's opinion will hold up, or how enforcement might work going forward. But the opinion points to some intriguing considerations as all liberal democracies debate their responses to the problems of misinformation and scarce objectivity in news media.

Approaching misinformation as a problem of audience rights rather than speaker rights is a compelling spin.

The approach is not unknown in U.S. telecommunication regulation, which is justified in part with reference to public ownership of the airwaves. As television transitioned from broadcast to cable, the public right to receive gained ground alongside the property rationale. Though these days, the whole enterprise of balkanized media regulation is constitutionally questionable.

Detaching the audience right from the medium to ground a general right to receive accurate information from mass media, apart from speaker rights, is, anyway, a bold further step. The debate in American free speech law over anonymity and compelled source disclosure in campaign finance, though, comes to mind.

The idea that fact and opinion can be distinguished, or should be distinguished, is an additionally intriguing idea.

It would be easy to conclude that the distinction is too hazardous to contemplate, chilling the practice of journalism for fear of perceived slant, invading the province of ethics, and threatening the vital tradition of the editorial page. The fuzzy identity of advocacy documentary puts the problem in focus, whether the subject to be tested is Hillary: The Movie (2008), the film at the heart of Citizens United, or the latest Michael Moore project.

At the same time, the "fact-opinion dichotomy" is an extant feature of our defamation law. We have developed tools to make the distinction, and we expose assertions of fact to greater potential liability than we do opinions.

Indeed, the Mexican fact-opinion distinction is not grounded in an effort to combat misinformation; rather, the notion grows out of advertising regulation, where the concept is familiar to American jurisprudence, too. Mexican regulators sought to protect consumers against surreptitious advertising strategies such as product placements and paid endorsements. The U.S. First Amendment similarly tolerates heightened government regulation of commercial speech in the interest of consumer protection.

In commentary on the Mexican case, Daniel Villanueva-Plasencia at Baker Mackenzie wonders at the implications if the fact-opinion regulatory distinction were to escape the confines of telecommunication and find its way to the internet, where social media influencers, among other content creators, would come within its purview.

I do not mean to suggest that compulsory fact-opinion labeling is constitutionally unproblematic, or even viable, in U.S. First Amendment law. I do suggest that an approach to the misinformation problem beginning with audience rights and compelled disclosure, that is, with more information rather than less, is a good starting point for discussion.

The case is Centro Litigio Estratégico para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos v. Presidente de la República, No. 1031/2019 (Sup. Ct. J. Nación 2021) (excerpt of opinion).

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Communication education makes people better

Preparing for my Trump Litigation Seminar next week, I just re-read the final chapter of James Zirin's Plaintiff in Chief.  Variously attributed, Zirin catalogs the vocabulary of our truth-challenged culture, discussing "post-truth" (Oxford Word of the Year 2016), "truth [that] isn't truth," (Rudy Giuliani), "truth decay" (RAND), and "alternative facts" (Kellyanne Conway).  And, of course, who could forget the great Stephen Colbert's groundbreaking "truthiness" (The Wørd, and a real word).  Along with Trevor Noah, I've wondered at the breakdown in distinction between fact and opinion.  More than once, my wife, in slack-jawed witness of the news on TV, has declared the need for media literacy education in our K12 schools (and perhaps, I add, in our senior centers). 

Dr. Sherry Morreale (UCCS)
It turns out that media literacy is just one piece in the puzzle of what might be missing in our society today. Communication Professor Sherwyn P. Morreale has co-authored a series of scholarly articles on Why Communication Education Is Important.  Her third installment, co-authored with Joseph M. Valenzano and Janessa A. Bauer, has just won the 2020 Distinguished Article Award in the Basic Course Division of the National Communication Association (NCA).  The abstract speaks to the range of life skills that are bolstered by communication education (my highlighting).

The results of this study argue that communication, and specifically oral communication education, is critical to students’ future personal and professional success. Similar to two earlier studies, thematic analysis of 679 documents in academic and popular press publications, published from 2008 to 2015, provide support for the centrality of the communication discipline’s content and pedagogy. These results reinforce the importance of communication to enhancing organizational processes and organizational life; promoting health communication; enriching the educational enterprise; understanding crisis, safety, risk, and security; improving interpersonal communication and relationships; influencing diplomacy and government relations; being a responsible participant in the world, socially and culturally; developing as a whole person; and succeeding as an individual in one’s career and in business. The kinds of communication addressed as important in each of these nine general themes are outlined, and the results are compared with those in the first two iterations of the study.

This conclusion might seem self-evident to the academic outsider (technical term, "real people") but it readily escapes the grasp of the bean counters who run today's STEM-obsessed universities, where faculty in the social sciences (law included) are tormented with demands that their departments generate revenue to justify their existence.  Because that's why we educate people, for the money.

The current study is titled, Why communication education is important: a third study on the centrality of the discipline’s content and pedagogy, and appears at 66:4 J. Communication Educ. 402 (2017).  Dr. Morreale previously published, with co-author Judy C. Pearson, Why Communication Education is Important: The Centrality of the Discipline in the 21st Century, 57:2 J. Communication Educ. 224 (2008); and, with co-authors Pearson and Michael M. Osborn, Why communication is important: A rationale for the centrality of the study of communication, 29:1 J. Ass'n Communication Admin. 1 (2000).

Full disclosure: Dr. Morreale is my aunt.  She always was the cool aunt.  So her parents are probably to blame for my academic nature, and she, in part, for the nurture.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Informe costarricense mixto sobre libertad de expresión: tribunales presionan por transparencia; ley se mueve contra discurso de odio, desinformación

[English translation by Google.]

Desde la perspectiva norteamericana, Costa Rica ha sido aclamada durante mucho tiempo como un modelo de democracia en las Américas. Eso es lo que me llevó a enfocarme en Costa Rica para estudios universitarios en periodismo comparativo, y fue así que desperté un amor por el país. Es importante destacar que San José opera como la sede de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos. La afinidad de Costa Rica con los Estados Unidos se remonta en los tiempos modernos a la transformadora y ahora legendaria primera presidencia de Óscar Arias en la década de 1980 (sin dejar de mencionar las recientes acusaciones, e.g., Time). Si hoy es cierto, en algún sentido, que Costa Rica está a la vanguardia de los derechos humanos regionales, entonces vale la pena ver los acontecimientos en Costa Rica como un referente.

Un nuevo informe exhaustivo sobre la libertad de expresión y la libertad de información en Costa Rica ha sido emitido por el Programa de Libertad de Expresión y Derecho a la Información y el Centro de Investigación de Comunicación de la Universidad de Costa Rica (HT@ Observacom). En general, este informe revela un sistema legal que lucha con problemas que son familiares en otros países—por ejemplo, el acceso público y periodístico a las plataformas de redes sociales cuando un político aparentemente elige hacer negocios allí. Un informe de este tipo no es único en las Américas (mira, e.g., México 2019), y este no es el primero de Costa Rica; admito que me atrajo debido a la coincidencia de algunos problemas que me interesan, incluso colegiación de periodismo, mencionados a continuación.

El primer capítulo del informe (y el único que he leído) está escrito por la abogada, periodista, y académica, Giselle Boza Solano. Boza concluye con preocupación que no ha habido movimiento legislativo en Costa Rica para garantizar la proliferación de las diversas voces en la era de internet, donde el mercado del discurso y la elaboración de la política del habla están cada vez más dominados por los grandes proveedores de servicios, como Google. Su preocupación está sincronizada con los movimientos en Europa, con Francia a la cabeza, y en América Latina, con Uruguay como organizador. Costa Rica parece ser próximo en esta lista. Sin embargo, Boza, y el informe, reconocen y examinan las iniciativas para financiar los esfuerzos cinematográficos y audiovisuales con un impuesto a las plataformas digitales y la televisión por suscripción.

Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos
(foto por Eli NW CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Además, me anima el comentario de Boza sobre la jurisprudencia costarricense. Si la selección es indicativa, los tribunales, en la mayor parte, parecen mantenerse a la par con su compromiso histórico con las libertades de expresión e información. En el área de libertad de información, el Tribunal Constitucional dictó decisiones que facilitan el acceso electrónico a datos meteorológicos y el registro electrónico de la policía en lugares públicos. Los tribunales dictaron decisiones que facilitaron el acceso de los ciudadanos al proceso legislativo y a la legislación. La inclinación por los legisladores a retirarse a la oscuridad en nuestros tiempos difíciles parece ser una norma universal.

El Tribunal Constitucional también reprendió al Colégio de Periodistas por afirmar una provincia exclusiva sobre el derecho a llamarse a sí mismo periodista, ante la queja de un periodista digital sin el título universitario, como se requiere. El tribunal reiteró la consecuente opinión consultiva de la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos de 1985, incluso antes de que el periodismo digital existiera propiamente. Es bastante sorprendente que esto todavía sea algo que deba adjudicarse 35 años después. (Escribí sobre este caso cuando era estudiante en 1993 y, para ser justo, la situación es un poco más complicada de lo que parece en la superficie. Aún así….)

Hay motivos de preocupación más allá de la falta de impulso para la libertad de internet. El proyecto de ley mejoraría o aplicaría el castigo penal por el discurso de odio y la difusión de desinformación ("noticias falsas"). Tales leyes se encontrarían en conflicto contra la libertad de expresión. Costa Rica ciertamente no es el único país con tales propuestas sobre la mesa, pero, nuevamente, esto es problemático en una democracia de vanguardia.

Eso es solo el capítulo 1. El informe presenta un análisis cuantitativo de la autopercepción de los medios, y, también, capítulos sobre publicidad, violencia contra las mujeres en las noticias, y más. La publicación es el II Informe sobre el estado de la libertad de expresión en Costa Rica (2020) (descargar por capítulo).

Muchas gracias a mi editor en español, Ricardo Serrano, politólogo, periodista, estudiante de derecho, y creador de contenido electrónico.  Los errores son todos míos.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Sandy Hook father wins $450,000 in Wisconsin defamation case against conspiracy theorists

A Sandy Hook parent won a $450,000 defamation award in Wisconsin last week, when I was out of town.  The case is interesting not only as a collateral installment in the litigation aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting, but as an installment in the legal system's ongoing grappling with misinformation in mass media, so-called "fake news."

Lenny Pozner, father of decedent six-year-old Noah Pozner, won his defamation suit against Sandy Hook deniers James H. Fetzer and Mike Palecek in June, on summary judgment.  A jury trial was had only on the question of damages.  In the complaint, Pozner claimed severe mental distress, besides the requisite reputational harm.  Now This News has more about Pozner's ordeal, beyond the traumatic loss of his son:

The crux of the falsity in the defamation claim was defendants' assertion that Pozner was in possession of and distributing a falsified death certificate.  Attached to the complaint, Noah Pozner's death certificate reports the cause of death, "Multiple Gunshot Wounds."  Lenny Pozner alleged that the defendants' assertion appeared in a 2016 book, edited by Fetzer and Palecek, Nobody Died at Sandy Hook, and on Fetzer's conspiracy-theory blog.  The book publisher earlier settled and agreed to stop selling the book.

Fetzer, who resides in Wisconsin, is, amazingly, a distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Minnesota Duluth.  His work included JFK conspiracy research.  Fetzer's university home page bears this disclaimer:

James Fetzer is a UMD Philosophy Professor Emeritus and conspiracy theorist. He retired from UMD in 2006. His theories are his own and are not endorsed by the University of Minnesota Duluth or the University of Minnesota System.  As faculty emeriti, Fetzer's work is protected by the University of Minnesota Regents Policy on Academic Freedom, which protects creative expression and the ability to speak or write on matters of public interest without institutional discipline or restraint. 

The university deserves a lot of credit for respecting academic freedom even in these challenging circumstances.  Fetzer meanwhile has cast the loss in Wisconsin as a book banning and offense to freedom of the press.

Fetzer and Palecek have books for all occasions.  One title, still for sale, is And Nobody Died in Boston Either, referring to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.  Three people were killed at the scene in Boston, and more than 200 were injured.

Meanwhile on the Sandy Hook litigation front, the Connecticut litigation against Remington Arms is still pending cert. petition in the U.S. Supreme Court.  Remington seeks to nullify the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling allowing victim-family plaintiffs a thin-reed theory to circumvent federal statutory immunity.  Plaintiffs filed their responsive brief on October 4, and Remington filed a reply on October 18.

[UPDATE, Nov. 13, 2019: The U.S. Supreme Court denied cert. in the Remington case, so it will go back to the trial court in Connecticut.]