By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Michael Mann, Mark Steyn and the court of public opinion


Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn is one of my least favorite pundits. But I also don’t like it when people use libel to settle disputes. It seems to me that the climate scientist Michael Mann has the public platform he needs to fight back against Steyn’s smears without having to resort to a lawsuit.

Nevertheless, I think U.S. Judge Frederick Weisberg, who’s presiding over the matter of Mann v. Steyn, probably got it right in deciding that the case can move forward, as Mariah Blake reports for Mother Jones. Ignore the hyperbole over Steyn’s loathsome comparison of Mann to Jerry Sandusky; the key is that Steyn wrote Mann had trafficked in scientifically “fraudulent” data. Steyn claims that’s a matter of opinion, but the question of whether someone committed fraud is something that is either true or not. And if it’s not true, then Steyn may well be found to have libeled Mann. The standard was set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990).

I should note that Jonathan Adler, writing at The Volokh Conspiracy, believes that Steyn’s statements amount to “hyperbolic expressions of opinion, not statements of fact,” and should therefore be considered protected speech. My response is that it’s a close enough call that a jury should be allowed to decide.

In any event, Steyn has gotten himself into a significant mess with his prose and with his mouth. He’s reportedly had a falling-out with one of his co-defendants, the conservative journal National Review, and he currently lacks legal representation as well. I can’t say I’m sympathetic. This is a guy who once called former senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam, “a beneficiary of the medal inflation that tends to accompany unpopular wars.”

But is this how we wish to decide public controversies? In court? There are any number of public forums available to Mann for him to defend himself against Steyn’s accusations, and those forums would probably provide Mann with greater satisfaction than a libel suit that could drag on for years. My advice to Professor Mann: Drop the suit and go on the attack.

Photo via Wikipedia.

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  1. Did you read Rich Lowry’s immediate reply after this whole thing kicked off?

    I’d enjoy seeing Steyn and Lowry get their comeuppance.

  2. taxman10m

    Did you read Rich Lowry’s immediate reply to this whole thing?

  3. Conrad Dunkerson

    “But is this how we wish to decide public controversies? In court?”


    In court is EXACTLY where I would like to see ‘controversies’ like this settled. When the ‘controversy’ exists SOLELY because one side is willing to lie as long and as widely as needed to create ‘controversy’ the ONLY way to stop it is in court. Lying doesn’t work as well in court as it does in politics, or modern ‘journalism’. If not for the legal arena, we’d still be arguing over the ‘controversy’ of whether smoking is healthy or not… the ‘controversy’ over whether asbestos is safe for children or not… the ‘controversy’ over whether DDT is good for the environment or not… et cetera.

    It would be great if politicians and/or journalists could be relied upon to tell the truth…. but that obviously is NOT the world we live in. Mann ‘fighting back’ in those arenas, as you suggest, is ultimately going to be pointless. He says one thing, his detractors say another. In such an environment the end result is always that people believe what they want to believe. Facts are irrelevant because the other side has their own ‘facts’… prove that they made those up and they just make up more… and people keep believing them. Take a look at Fox News’s ratings some time. Or Limbaugh. Or even Steyn. A constant stream of false reporting doesn’t hurt them at all. Heck, the bigger the liar the better they do.

    No, taking Steyn and the like to court isn’t a perfect solution. It is simply the ONLY solution which can actually work. We won’t see an end to the ‘controversy’ over whether Mann committed scientific fraud (and the larger question of global warming for that matter) until it is decided in court or the money funding the lies dries up.

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