Slander in the Sun-Post

This article has two themes. One is Obama vs. McCain and in particular one of the many slanderous slurs – namely, infanticide – the McCain camp has directed toward Obama, as well as the rebuttal of that accusation. The second theme is the responsibility of the media when they are asked to convey slanderous (or libelous, to be technical) material.

The first theme takes the form of a story. The story begins with a letter-to-the-editor in the Sun newspapers accusing Barack Obama of supporting infanticide, and it continues with my attempts to rebut the accusation, including a conversation with a Sun newspaper editor and a letter-to-the-editor which was not printed.

The second theme appears in my discussion of the issues raised by this incident.

The Story

In the October 16 edition of the Sun Post appeared a letter which got my attention. It was an attack on Barack Obama written by one William Reale of Shaker Heights, and after a few paragraphs of standard conservative dogma (which I will briefly summarize below), it accused Obama of supporting infanticide. Here is the latter portion of the letter in its entirety:

“While Obama’s anti-Americanism is of paramount importance, the thing that repulses me the most is that he is a supporter of infanticide. I don’t say this because he is virulently pro-abortion, but because as a member of the Illinois senate, he voted three times against legislation that would protect a baby that survives an abortion.”

Reale continues: “Instead of protecting an abortion survivor, Obama apparently prefers the practice of putting the baby in some out of the way place and letting it die unattended. Why he would wish to punish such a baby is beyond my comprehension, but it is clearly infanticide and I don’t believe anyone who supports infanticide should hold any public office, let alone be president of the United States.”

That is Mr. Reale’s statement, and it is a shocking one, especially since (if you haven’t guessed) I am an Obama supporter. After reading the letter, I picked up the phone on Friday, October 17, and reached Mary Jane Skala, the editor for the eastern Sun Newspapers group. I asked her whether Mr. Reale’s statements are true or not. She said she didn’t know, because the paper doesn’t check on such things. I asked: If I wrote a letter saying that either Obama or McCain (take your pick) was a serial killer, would she print it? She said she would not, because such a letter would be libelous (with the implication, obviously, that Mr. Reale’s letter was not libelous). I pointed out that she was making a distinction without a difference, and there it stood. But she did suggest I write a letter of my own. I did so, and submitted the letter the following Monday, October 20, clearly under the deadline.

Here is the letter I submitted. Because it is the best and fullest expression of what I knew and believed, I include it in its totality (with apologies for some repetition):

“The McCain campaign has nothing to offer the country except failed Bush economic policies and military adventures plus a Supreme Court mired in the 18th century. So they resort to personal attacks on Obama -- slurs, misrepresentations, overgeneralizations and gross distortions.

“The keynote of the Obama campaign is generosity and hope. The keynote of McCain’s campaign is toxic and invective.

“A case in point is a letter in the Sun newspapers of October 16, by one William Reale of Shaker Heights.

“After familiar conservative calls for ‘freedom, private property, limited government and individual responsibility’ plus the now-familiar guilt-by-association charges and a complete distortion of Obama’s Iraq policy, Reale comes out with his most striking charge, infanticide. Here is what he says about Obama:

“‘ . . . as a member of the Illinois senate he voted three times against legislation that would protect a baby that survives an abortion.’

“Continuing: ‘Instead of protecting an abortion survivor, Obama apparently prefers the practice of putting the baby in some out of the way place and letting it die unattended. . . . clearly infanticide . . .’

“This is a shocking accusation, not to be leveled nor accepted lightly. But it isn’t true. According to Obama’s website, the Chicago Tribune and other sources, these are the facts:

“The legislation referred to was Illinois SB 1082 (2003). This bill, and others like it, were dubbed “born-alive” bills because they mandated protection of any baby that survived an abortion.

“At the time of the votes in question, “born-alive” protection was already part of federal law and Illinois law as well. This alone erases any possibility that Obama might have intended infanticide, because such intent would have been futile.

“The reason why Obama voted against SB 1082 was wording in the bill that might have undermined Illinois laws and precedents protecting abortion rights – wording that differed from corresponding wording in the federal bill. (Whether this interpretation was correct might be legally contentious, but since Obama was president of the Harvard Law Review, I’ll rest easy with his take on the legalities.)

“Furthermore, Obama stated that if he had been in the U.S. Senate when the federal “born-alive” bill came up, he would have voted for it.

“In short, Reale’s letter was a typical dirty-tricks tactic – seizing on a vote by a legislator and distorting the meaning of that vote to put it in the worst possible light. Shameful.”

That is my letter. Just before submitting it by e-mail, I again tried to reach Ms. Skala. Instead I reached her assistant, Ray Jablonski, confirmed that there was still time to get a letter in under the deadline, and notified him that the letter was coming. (He later confirmed that it was received.) The letter did not appear in any of the Sun newspapers on October 23, and since the deadline for political letters had already passed) on Oct. 21, it will not appear. Nor were there any other letters – at least not in the Sun Post -- that addressed the charge of infanticide against Obama.

The Issue of Media Responsibility

Recall my question about a letter that would accuse Obama or McCain of serial murder, and Ms. Skala’s answer that it would be barred as obviously libelous. What that means is that material which could be libelous, material which is clearly harmful – just so long as it was not obviously libelous on its fact -- would be allowed in.

And that is irresponsible. The media should not be a conduit for libel. In the Sun newspaper case, the editors could have easily found what Obama had to say about the charge of infanticide, and with a little more work they could have gotten the full set of facts on which to base a well-informed, reasoned decision. This could all have been presented to the reader in an editorial note or commentary. If the editors were unwilling or unable to do this, they should not have published the letter.

This sort of issue is one that will probably face the media more and more as the free-flowing world of the Internet, most notably the blogosphere, becomes more prominent. Hopefully, anyone who presents factual statements to the public will make sure the statements are fully examined and found to be justified. But that may be wishful thinking.

In any case, the more traditional institutions, those that profess allegiance to established journalistic standards, should insure that they not become conduits for libel; this they owe to the public.

One impediment to this end is the traditional journalistic distinction between fact and opinion. This distinction is fine as far as it goes, but it is inadequate, and it often leads to situations such as that just described. For in the effort to avoid injecting opinion into reporting, a newspaper (or radio or TV station), will present any assertion as a fact – because, after all, the undoubted fact is that the assertion was made! (It is a fact that Mr. Reale accused Obama of supporting infanticide.) Maybe a rebuttal argument is allowed; maybe not. In any case the accusation sticks in the reader’s mind whether it is justified or not.

We need to recognize not merely two but three categories: fact, analysis, and evaluation. The first two are objective (though it may be difficult to perform a completely objective analysis). The third – evaluation – is subjective. When a questionable accusation is made, evaluation – the subjective element – need not be employed. Analysis, in an extended sense, could be employed to bring out counterarguments, examine evidence and in general determine for the reader how well-founded the accusation is.

Finally, perhaps the greatest libel of all is that Obama has gotten where he is because the media are on his side.

Read More on Minding the Issues
Volume 4, Issue 22, Posted 9:29 AM, 10.24.2008