As reported last week the wife of Donald Trump has initiated a lawsuit against author, blogger, and radio talk show host Webster Tarpley and the British newspaper the Daily Mail.
A $75,000 defamation suit was filed after Tarpley and the Mail posted a story claiming Melania Trump worked for an escort service prior to marrying the billionaire presidential candidate. Trump claims the story references “unfounded rumors and innuendo.”
Webster Tarpley responded to the lawsuit by claiming his “editors, writers and contributors did not generate said rumors” and admitted the story “was not diligent in fact-checking or maintaining a healthy distance between innuendo and fact.”
Tarpley retracted the story and formally apologized. However, this did not stop Trump from going ahead with a lawsuit.
“Melania Trump’s lawsuit against me is without merit. Mrs. Trump is a public figure actively engaged in the Trump for president campaign. We are confident that Mrs. Trump will not be able to meet her high burden of proving the statements published about her on my website were defamatory in any way. Her lawsuit is a blatant attempt to intimidate not only me but journalists of all stripes into remaining silent with regard to public figures. This lawsuit is a direct affront to First Amendment principles and free speech in our democratic society,” Tarpley wrote on September 1.
Prior to the $115 million verdict against Gawker in the Hulk Hogan sex tape case it was rare for public figures to sue unless the target of the lawsuit had money. The Gawker verdict demonstrated it is now feasible to use a lawsuit as a political weapon to take down a media organization.
Hulk Hogan, aka Terry Gene Bollea, was not alone in his lawsuit against Gawker. He had a secret financial backer—Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal. Gawker outed the Silicon Valley billionaire as gay in 2007. “It’s less about revenge and more about specific deterrence,” Thiel told The New York Times. “I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest.”
In 1973 Pittsburgh Press Co. v. Human Rel. Comm'n established that the subject of a defamation lawsuit cannot argue innocence based on the fact he or she republished information from another source. Large corporate news organizations with significant financial resources at risk carefully check and double-check sources in order to avoid lawsuits. This is not always the case with small and more vulnerable news operations.
Many alternative media news stories are based on single sources and extrapolation, leaving journalists and news sites open to retaliatory lawsuits like the one launched by Melania Trump. She is not merely interested in a retraction and apology. Trump intends to financially harm and possible destroy not only The Daily Mail but also the career of Webster Tarpley. The Daily Mail, a newspaper with a circulation over 1.5 million, has successfully weathered libel lawsuits in the past from a number of people, including the actress Diana Rigg, the musician Elton John, the author J. K. Rowling, and others. It is not likely the Trump lawsuit, if successful, will put The Daily Mail out of business. Conversely Gawker, a relatively large operation with an appreciable Alexa ranking backed by the media corporation Univision Communications, filed bankruptcy and ceased operations after a Florida jury awarded Hogan $140 million.
Small and independent alternative news media operations are now at risk. The Gawker case and the outcome of the Trump lawsuit have undoubtedly set a precedent. The Trump lawsuit reveals powerful and wealthy people now have the incentive and legal standing to target small fish like Webster Tarpley and other journalists and researchers, not to claim any sort of financial settlement but to shut them down.
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