Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Consult before you leap 

By publishing the Hoy article in the front page, the Chronicle flunked the journalism standards test. It was a deliberate and malicious �hatchet job� that served no purpose other than attempting to justify Dr. Lewis� recent removal from the dean�s office. It was nothing less than a character assassination.

By refusing to retract the story, the Chronicle seems to have failed the legal test as well. Dr. Lewis� attorney will try to demonstrate that the Chronicle acted with a reckless disregard for the truth or falsity. Let�s see. Almost the entire article was based on the interview of one individual. That individual just happened to be one of the plaintiffs who had brought a suit against Richard Lewis.

The Chronicle did not interview any people most likely to confirm or refute Hoy�s charges. It wouldn�t be too difficult for the court to find that the newspaper�s inaction was a product of a deliberate decision not to acquire knowledge of facts that might confirm the probable falsity of Hoy�s charges.

The court will want to know whether the publication of the Hoy story was made in good faith. In Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. v. Connaughton, 491 U.S. 657 (1989), the U.S. Supreme Court said that, in a case involving the reporting of a third party�s allegations, �recklessness may be found where there are obvious reasons to doubt the veracity of the informant or the accuracy of his reports.� How would the Hoy story measure up here? A story about 98 % of which was based on statements of the opposing party in a previous lawsuit? A story adorned with the reporter�s liberal editorialization? This isn�t brain surgery.

Is the Chronicle going to claim its First Amendment rights? The court may already have an answer, following the Harte-Hanks Communications case: �We have not gone so far, however, as to accord the press absolute immunity in its coverage of public figures or elections. If a false and defamatory statement is published with knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth, the public official may prevail.�

The Chronicle announced that it had ceased, after consultation with its lawyer, any further investigation about the article. Too bad that it had not consulted a lawyer BEFORE it ran the story.