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

Marty Baron says news outlets should consider suing their tormenters for libel

Photo (cc) 2017 by Álvaro García Fuentes

Retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron writes about an unusual idea in his recent book, “Collision of Power.” Baron thinks that the time has come for news organizations to turn the tables on their tormenters and sue them for libel. Think of it like Dominion Voting System’s lawsuit against Fox News, which brought a $787.5 million settlement, except that the plaintiff would be a media outlet rather than a voting-machine company.

In his book, Baron observes that Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have both suggested that the law should be changed to make it easier for public officials and public figures to bring (and win) libel suits. He writes:

Legacy media have always vigorously defended against libel suits. Rarely have they brought defamation lawsuits of their own. What good could come of pursuing the sort of litigation we deplored? However, those who smear us find comfort in the expectation that, while we might complain, we’re unlikely to sue. We have rendered ourselves sitting ducks for slander.

I don’t want mainstream journalists to behave like warriors in the practice of their craft, but neither do I want us to suffer attacks on our character without fighting back. Winning in the court of public opinion may require, at times, going to court. If DeSantis, and copycat governors, make it easier for defamation plaintiffs to prevail, perhaps we should make some of those victories our own.

The reason I’m bringing this up now is that Baron expanded on the idea in a recent appearance on “Double Take,” a podcast produced by Newton Investment Management. Baron was interviewed by two Newton analysts, Rafe Lewis (formerly of The Boston Globe) and Jack Encarnacao (formerly of the Boston Herald). It’s a sharp interview, and well worth a listen.

As befits a podcast hosted by a financial firm, much of the conversation covered the revival of The Washington Post as a business under the ownership of Jeff Bezos. Unfortunately, the Post has gone backwards since Baron departed, and neither Lewis nor Encarnacao asked him about it. No doubt if they had, Baron would have simply said he’s not there anymore. But the Post lost a reported $100 million in 2023 and is shedding staff with the same alacrity that it was adding bodies a few years ago.

A new publisher, William Lewis, began work this month. In “Collision of Power,” Baron offers a mixed assessment of Lewis’ predecessor, Fred Ryan. Perhaps Lewis, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal and CEO of Dow Jones, will come up with a strategy for Post to thrive in the post-Trump era — that is, if we’ve even entered the post-Trump era.

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  1. Dane S. Claussen

    This is all very vague. Is Baron suggesting that journalists sue for being personally libeled? Or that media corporations sue for business libel? Or both? In any case, Baron should know enough about libel law to know that critics can say an awful lot about journalists, journalism, and news media companies without being libelous at all, in addition to the high probability that journalists and news media companies are, at the least, limited-purpose public figures.

    • Dan Kennedy

      Dane: The section I quoted from Baron’s book makes it clear that he’s talking about what news organizations might consider doing if the actual malice standard for public figures is weakened, as Trump and DeSantis have proposed.

  2. Paul Letendre

    Mature enterprises, primarily mature publicly traded enterprises, have one goal: increase revenue ( top-line, bottom-line). On a level playing field, this is extremely difficult. It can be near impossible. With creative enhancements and exaggeration (lies), bottom lines can flourish.
    Great news organizations can’t exist with lies. Marty Barrons are hard to find. Even with their recent penalties, Fox News is a model for success.

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