Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Billionaires Are a Unique Threat to Journalists

Emily Bazelon, New York Times:

In the half-century since New York Times v. Sullivan, the United States has often held itself up to the world as a beacon for the free press. American libel law, the theory goes, protects writers and publishers better than the laws of countries like Britain, where it’s easier to win a libel judgment. Yet giant jury awards don’t topple publications in the United Kingdom: The country has an unofficial damages cap of about £250,000 (plus legal fees). British publishers can, in essence, treat compensating someone whose reputation they have harmed as a cost of doing business. And it’s less risky for them to apologize for a story that turns out to be wrong. “There are limits on damages for malpractice suits against doctors,” says Robert Post, dean of the Yale Law School. “Why not for journalists?”

It’s tempting to treat Gawker’s demise as unique or deserved. But that’s a false form of reassurance, a former editor of the site, Tom Scocca, argued in August. Every publication “is prepared to absorb the damage when it makes a mistake,” he wrote on Gawker. “What Thiel’s covert campaign against Gawker did was to invisibly change the terms of the risk calculation.” The lesson, Scocca told his readers, is that “you live in a country where a billionaire can put a publication out of business.”

This may seem like the flip side of the proverbial coin of the Breitbart and AppNexus story I posted earlier today, but I don’t think it is. There is a great difference between a tabloid knowingly publishing things that are either out of context or outright falsehoods, and a legitimate media organization making a mistake. No legitimate publication should have its fate subject to the whims of someone with deeper pockets and nothing better to do.