Infringement on press freedom? Digital readers should focus on the news, not on the lawsuits
As digital journalism and the online blogging community continue to expand the boundaries of reportage, readers caught up in the wave of changes are beginning to seek more certain footing where they can evaluate what they are reading, and filter what is relevant from what is not. On one hand, the internet and all the tools at its disposal have given the press a power that they did not have before.
First, there is much to dissect and take in with exposes like the Panama Papers, which cannot help but compel even the most disinterested netizen to see how all the economic and political subterfuge exercised by his national leaders impact his life. Then, on the other hand, there is a growing number of journalistic gatekeepers sounding the alarm on how “big business” is muffling the freedom of the press with lawsuits asking for millions of dollars in damages that, if awarded by the court, could simply bankrupt a media publisher or a news agency.
The Pontiac Daily Leader has raised an outcry over how billionaire technocrat Peter Thiel is “bankrolling” celebrity Hulk Hogan’s lawsuits against Gawker Media which ran a story in 2012 about the wrestler’s appearance in a sex tape. A public personality like Hogan taking Gawker to court for the supposed invasion of his private life is expected; what Pontiac was crying foul of was Thiel’s apparent interference: the Paypal founder, who had no involvement in the Hogan case, was throwing huge amounts of money to help him apparently to teach Gawker a long-delayed lesson. In 2007, Gawker had pulled Thiel out from the gay closet and thrust him into the spotlight.
Spanish broadcaster Univision is another media outlet feeling the heat of a crushing million-dollar lawsuit, this time from mogul and presidential candidate Donald Trump. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Trump is suing Univision for damages worth a whopping $500 million for terminating their contract which should have the TV network broadcasting his Miss USA pageant for five years. Univision invoked freedom of the press as a reason for termination, finding Trump’s inflammatory remarks about Mexicans racist and offensive; in one campaign speech lambasting the influx of immigrants to the US, the controversial billionaire had practically labeled millions of Univision’s audiences as criminals, drug lords, and rapists.
Both cases—and others like them—had sent shock waves to the journalistic community. One ally of the embattled news outlets is First Look Media’s Press Litigation Fund which aims to provide financial support for publishers, editors, and reporters who are feeling the tremendous legal heat from the rich and the powerful. Nieman Lab says that First Look is handling five such cases and has in fact won one: the two-year legal battle that Mother Jones fought against Idaho businessman Frank VanderSloot’s charge of defamation.
Wars like these have been fought since the first newspaper rolled off the press, but millions of digital readers now can feel like they are caught in-between because of the massive flow of information flowing from both channels. To these readers, it all comes down to the truth and the reportage of objective news: which do they believe in? Respected establishments like The New York Times and The Washington Post, for example, will often get the benefit of the public’s doubt because of their proven history of reporting the news accurately and fairly. First Look Media screens its colleagues and clients before taking on a case, ensuring that freedom of speech is the one being threatened and has to be truly protected.
Cases like Gawker, however, require closer scrutiny. Though it brands Thiel’s motives as punitive, Pontiac notes that Gawker’s own history shows it has a hard time distinguishing public interest from “gratuitous intrusion.”
Larger-than-life personalities, their motives, and not-so-hidden agenda can obscure the news from what is merely sensational. Readers would do well to examine the following before assuming that press freedom is being threatened: all the parties’ business interests, their record and reputation when it comes to integrity and fairness, any history of conflict between both sides, the nature of the news that is at the heart of the maelstrom, and the relevance of any court ruling to how the reader can obtain free and true information in the future. In the meantime, there are less controversial trusted sites and their apps like Bloomberg, BBC, Born2Invest, and Wall Street Journal. They know that the information that they are getting from these sources are accurate, objective, and free from any controversy and ambiguity.