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The irresponsibility of the tabloid press: Free speech, falsehood and defamation

Part 2 of 2

Recently, going through the Stop & Shop grocery check-out line, I picked up two issues of the Globe weekly magazine, published by American Media Inc., formerly owned by Rupert Murdoch.  The tabloid seemed to have two deliberate intentions:  (1) to defame the Royal family of Britain, and (2) to defame liberal Democrats in the USA. 

If no one could possibly believe the Globe allegations, or if everyone considered them as merely a joke, that would be one thing. But we know from bitter experience that there is a sizable, and presumably uninformed and gullible, segment of the voting public that willfully swallows the bait. Why? Because they want to. These are the very people who Donald Trump, in an unguarded moment, characterized as “the stupidest people in America.” Was he right? Did they turn the 2016 election?

The lead article in the first Globe weekly magazine blazed out: “Queen HATES Harry’s Bride!” Then it added: “Elizabeth humiliates Meghan.” The evidence?  The Globe asserts that Queen Elizabeth sent a “terse letter” to Parliament saying she was “not happy” with the union. (Of course, no such letter was sent.)  The second Globe magazine follows this up with the headline: “Kate and Meghan HATE each other.” (All objective evidence points to their friendship.) 

Then comes the Globe’s “shocking news.” The headline runs: “Charles’ Four Secret Children.” The implication is scandalous philandering by the Prince of Wales, first in line for the British throne. Again, no actual evidence or truth to it.  Why? To what end? To titillate the readership? Or bring down the monarchy?  

Then the Globe turns its venom on liberal Americans, like George Clooney. But the banner headline is devoted to Barack and Michelle Obama: “Michelle Throws Barack Under the Bus!” The Globe then explains: “Having suffered for too long with her husband’s infidelities, Michelle Obama is writing a book about Obama and his numerous ‘other’ women.” Extra juicy, the book describes an “explosive fight” during a Hawaiian vacation where Michelle first learned that “the Secret Service had been hiding Barack’s infidelities.”

No matter that Barack and Michelle are a virtual American icon of fidelity in marriage, and as responsible parents of two fine young daughters. So, what’s the point? What’s the Globe’s motive?  Is it just to titillate? Is it to undermine American family values? Is it to detract attention from President Trump’s own behavior? Is it to convince a gullible segment of the U.S. voting public that all U.S. presidents are philandering adulterers, so don’t pay attention to the current allegations about the sitting president? Or is it defamation for the fun of it?

Not content with that calumny, the Globe goes on to “break the news” that Michelle Obama is being paid $15 million for a “tell-all” book “set to expose cheating and dirty tricks with the crooked Clintons.” (Guess where the word “crooked” comes from.) But again, why? Does the Globe want to vilify any and all  Democrats? Is the Globe still fighting the long-past 2016 U.S. presidential election? Does the Globe want to distract public attention from all the more plausible allegations concerning the Trump/Kushner organizations, money laundering, the “Russia connection,” and possible obstruction of justice? In any event, the alleged book publication date predicted by the Globe is now past. Still no book.  Nor would Michelle ever write such a thing about Hillary and Bill Clinton. 

The Globe has done a great disservice, and continues to do so, to Great Britain and to the United States, not to mention to all of civilization. The time has come to ask whether the tabloid press should not be subjected to the same rules of decency we are asking of Facebook and the rest of the cyber-electronic communications industry.  

Why do we hold Zuckerberg’s feet to the fire, while we let Murdoch and others run away free? Shouldn’t we reconsider the exception from the laws against defamation as concerns public persons? Isn’t it time to clean up our politically motivated discourse ?

Yes, it’s high time to act. With full respect for the constitutional rights of free speech and a free press, the tabloid publishers have to be held accountable for the truth and decency of what they write, receive and publish, like any other citizen or agency. They must be prosecuted for false reporting of what they know, or have clear reason to know, is false or defamatory. No exceptions, no pardons, no immunities. 

The best way to do this is by federal and state legislation to open our courts of law to hearing lawsuits by injured parties under both civil and criminal law against all purveyors of damaging falsehood and defamation. 

The result will be a more decent American society, cleaner elections and a return to the original intent, ideals and principles of the founders of our nation. If we want to “Make America Great Again,” this is one way to do it.

 

Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.