Accuracy in Media

You may have missed it-on page 14 of the March 28 New York Times, there was a six-paragraph story about former government scientist Steven Hatfill being allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court to proceed with his defamation suit. His target is the Times and its columnist Nicholas Kristof.

There have been several recent problems for the paper, including the inaccurate designation of the masked man in the Abu Ghraib prisoner-abuse scandal, but the Hatfill suit holds the potential of forcing the paper to pay millions of dollars in damages. The Times should have to pay.

The Times tried to play down the result. A story posted by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press had attorney David Schultz quoted as saying, “It’s not unexpected. Now it’s back to the trenches. We’re confident that at the end of the day that the case lacks merit.” David Schulz is with the New York law firm of Levine Sullivan Koch & Schulz.

As we noted in a 2002 column, “New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is one of those behind the FBI’s campaign against Dr. Steven Hatfill in the anthrax case. Without contacting Hatfill or his representatives, Kristof wrote five columns and thousands of words urging more FBI scrutiny of the scientist. He portrayed Hatfill as a despicable character with an unsavory past. But Hatfill’s attorney has been unable to get his side of the story in the paper. The Times now says it will run a Hatfill column on the matter, but only if it does not criticize Kristof by name. How’s that for fairness?”

The Kristof treatment of Hatfill was a classic case of defamation. As we know, despite being labeled a “person of interest” in the Anthrax case, Hatfill was never accused or charged with anything. Absolutely no evidence has been presented against him. But he has lost two jobs and his career has been destroyed.

Gail Collins, editorial page editor of The Times, had said of Kristof, “We have confidence in our columnists.” That confidence should be tested in court. But the Times wanted the courts to let Kristof off the hook.

In addition to his media defamation lawsuits, he is suing the Department of Justice over invasion of privacy. He wants the government agents who smeared him, by using the media, to pay for their crimes.

The proposed federal media shield law, enabling journalists to hide their government sources from public scrutiny, would make it harder if not impossible for Hatfill to get justice in his case. He would not be able to identify those “sources” behind his personal destruction.

AIM has been the only national organization opposed to a federal media shield law.

Kristof, by the way, has been shedding crocodile tears for the poor people of the Sudan, and the Times is running a contest to send someone to Africa with him to document the catastrophe in the Darfur region. It’s too bad Kristof doesn’t have any compassion for the innocent man whose life he ruined.

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