Despite what some may think of President Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “fake news” in referring to biased, partial and inaccurate news stories, the courts have long held that mainstream media outlets are neutral arbiters of truth and are protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, as a Politico article pointed out, the court’s view of the media’s neutrality has shifted in recent years and court cases.
Josh Gerstein penned the Politico article, headlined, “Media’s legal defeats trouble First Amendment advocates,” which detailed how legal experts and lawyers were worried that media outlets could continue to lose court cases. Gerstein’s article began with the following:
“A string of recent court setbacks for news organizations is prompting jitters among First Amendment advocates who fear that it could signal an erosion of the deference press outlets have enjoyed for decades in cases challenging their reporting.”
“Some legal experts view the rulings as signs that the courts’ view of the media is beginning to change, with more judges embracing the notion that major news outlets are partisan combatants rather than engaged in a dispassionate search for the truth.”
As the article referenced, the courts used to side with mainstream media outlets, editors, and journalists in cases about libel, slander, and whether the media had malicious intent in their reporting standards or styles. One anonymous media lawyer told Politico, “[T]he diminished standing of the media has had an impact on the judiciary, particularly among judges who are 50-ish and younger, of all partisan stripes.”
In other words, the media’s long-held standard of impartiality is questioned and under scrutiny by the newer and younger generation of judges.
For example, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated a lawsuit against the New York Times, filed by former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Palin claimed that a 2017 New York Times editorial incorrectly linked her to a 2011 shooting in Arizona, which shooting resulted in the death of six people and the serious injury of then-Rep. Gabby Giffords.
Another example of the turning tide against the media is a case between National Public Radio and conservative investor Ed Butowsky.
Butowsky is suing NPR for $57 million over NPR’s reporting on the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich and whether Rich leaked internal e-mails to WikiLeaks. The district judge said that NPR’s reporting implied that Butowsky committed “wrongdoing,” and the case was permitted to proceed in the court system.
Although the Politico article also quoted legal experts, which experts said that the media’s worries were overblown, it demonstrated that the courts are no longer rubber-stamping lawsuits in the media world in favor of the media outlets due to questions about the media’s impartiality. It is a positive step in the direction to hold the media accountable for their reporting or misreporting.