As a Millennial, Gen Z or Zillennial, you hear a lot about the importance of educating yourself. One important facet of today’s society is news literacy. How do you know an article is trustworthy? Are you supposed to trust every word from a news source if it has been running for decades? How do you tell the difference between news, analysis and opinion? Investigative journalism non-profit Project Veritas commenced a defamation lawsuit against The New York Times – a classic little guy vs. big guy situation. Last week, Justice Charles D. Wood of the Supreme Court of New York in Westchester County denied the NYT dismissal request, and the case will progress. Here’s the rundown.
The video that started it all
During the heat of the 2020 election, Project Veritas released Snapchat videos of Liban Mohamed – the brother-in-law of city council candidate Jamal Osman – harvesting ballots. Project Veritas’s report also included named and unnamed sources exposing voter fraud.
The New York Times article
NYT reporter Maggie Astor said that Project Veritas used “solely” unnamed sources. The first paragraph of her article said, “A deceptive video released on Sunday by the conservative activist James O’Keefe, which claimed through unidentified sources and with no verifiable evidence that Representative Ilhan Omar’s campaign had collected ballots illegally, was probably part of a coordinated disinformation effort…” With adjectives such as “deceptive,” an opinion is implied. But the article ran in the “News” section of the newspaper. Also, Project Veritas denied that they created a coordinated campaign for misinformation.
Why Project Veritas sued
(Here is the official complaint.) Project Veritas demanded a retraction, but that didn’t happen. So, they filed this complaint. They stated that 1) calling them “false” and “deceptive” is defamatory, 2) opinion shouldn’t be in the “News” section of a newspaper and 3) they didn’t rely “solely” on unidentified sources and 4) “The Times conspired with a left-leaning group of academics and college students to near-simultaneously have that group publish a blog post claiming that the Project Veritas investigation was a coordinated disinformation campaign.”
First, here’s a media law crash course. There are five boxes you must check for work to be called “defamatory.”
- False statement of fact
- The statement is published.
- Is the statement of public concern?
- The victim’s reputation must be damaged.
- The publisher said the statement with “actual malice.” (This must be proven with the case includes a public figure.)
In addition to filing for dismissal, NYT also asked the court to apply anti-SLAPP laws in their case. Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation laws are supposed to protect people/businesses from frivolous and baseless lawsuits. According to the Reporters Committee, they protect against lawsuits meant “to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights.” In this case, the court denied the request.
Why the court denied a dismissal
(Here is the official dismissal.) The court stated that “Veritas’ complaint adequately pleaded the five causes of action sounding in defamation.”
The court also stated that Project Veritas gave “a substantial basis in law and fact that the Defendants [The New York Times] acted with actual malice, that is, with knowledge that the statements in the Articles were false or made with reckless disregard of whether they were false or not.” Project Veritas now can continue to “conduct discovery.”
Past retractions in the media
Project Veritas instated a “Wall of Shame” in its offices, where they add journalists that were forced to retract false information about Project Veritas. The Wall of Shame holds newspaper clippings and printouts of retractions of more than 300 journalists.
The case isn’t over and will continue to unfold. The court said that “Veritas will have a high burden, to show actual malice by clear and convincing evidence.”
Until then, this is your small crash course in media law and news literacy.