Tort Law and Fake News

Photo of high school student at March for Life 2019This Friday, January 24, 2020, hundreds of thousands of people will gather in Washington D.C. for the 47th annual March for Life. This year’s theme for the March for Life is “Pro-Life is Pro-Woman.” Last year’s March for Life invited additional news coverage thanks to a video that depicted Nick Sandmann, a high school student, smiling at a Native American elder as the elder beat a drum in front of the student. This initial video made it seem as if the student was mocking the elder. In the wake of this viral video and the news coverage that ensued, there was an immense backlash against the student and his high school. I recall seeing posts on social media listing the email addresses of the school’s administrators encouraging people to flood their inboxes with less than courteous emails expressing disapproval of their student’s behavior.

However, later video evidence revealed that a group of Black Hebrew Israelites had been yelling racial slurs at Sandmann and his peers, and that the Native American elder approached Sandmann as a way of diffusing the situation between the Black Hebrew Israelites and the students. Moreover, it became clear that neither Sandmann nor his peers were at fault in the confrontation.

Sandmann filed a defamation suit against CNN seeking $250 million dollars for its inaccurate coverage of the confrontation and the emotional distress that he endured as a result. Earlier this month it was released that Sandmann had agreed to a settlement with CNN for an undisclosed amount.

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Soledad O’Brien and the Girl with a Broken Front Tooth

Soledad O’Brien remembers a girl in her high school on Long Island, New York, who broke a front tooth and went for many months without getting it fixed.

O’Brien grew up in a stable, comfortable home and never had to worry about shelter, food, medical care, or other valuable parts of stable living. And she never gave much thought to why the girl didn’t get her tooth fixed.

But the girl and her front tooth are still on her mind decades later. That girl makes her think about all the young women, then and now, who live unstable lives, who can’t meet daily needs that are met without much thought in other homes. “I was so naive and stupid about those things,” O’Brien said during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Tuesday.

“What sixteen-year-old girl walks around (with a broken front tooth). Think about her family circumstances, and think about what this girl was going through that that was completely normal. I don’t think I ever thought about poverty, I don’t think I ever thought about access to health care, or all these things as a journalist I would really dig in to.”

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How the Basic Journalism of PolitiFact Has Changed the Political Landscape

In 2007, with President George W. Bush’s second term as president coming to an end and Vice President Richard Cheney not aiming to succeed him, open races for both Democratic and Republican nominations for president were developing. Bill Adair thought it was time to bring more fact-checking into American political journalism.  Adair, then a Washington-based journalist with the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) began a project that the newspaper called Politifact.

The idea took off and, more than a decade later, PolitiFact and other political fact-checking efforts have become an important part of the national journalism landscape. PolitiFact is now an independent non-profit organization. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel became a partner with PolitiFact in 2010, ahead of the election that year in which Republican Scott Walker defeated Democrat Tom Barrett for governor, and continues to run PolitiFact pieces, with either national or local focuses, almost every day.

In an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program Tuesday at Marquette Law School, Angie Drobnic Holan, now the editor of PolitiFact and a part of its team since the start, and Tom Kertscher, who has worked on the Journal Sentinel’s PolitiFact team since its start, described the goals of what they do in terms core journalistic values.

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