The Washington Post is currently entangled in the opening salvos of a $250 million defamation lawsuit from the family of Covington Catholic High School teen Nicholas Sandmann.
Whether or not this ever goes to trial or whether the Sandmann side has a chance is really anyone’s guess, but The Post’s handling of how they helped turn a minor into a national pariah based on a very incomplete Twitter clip has been neither sensitive nor ideal.
All of which is to say that CNN either has an object lesson in how not to handle this or they’re about to trip over the same pratfalls as the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” folks. Either way, it appears they’re getting sued, and for more money than The Post was.
In an appearance on Mark Levin’s Fox News show that will air in full Sunday, Sandmann attorney L. Lin Wood said CNN was going to be hit with a larger lawsuit due to its “vicious” and “direct attacks” on his client.
“CNN was probably more vicious in its direct attacks on Nicholas than The Washington Post. And CNN goes into millions of individuals’ homes,” Wood told Levin.
“They really went after Nicholas with the idea that he was part of a mob that was attacking the Black Hebrew Israelites, yelling racist slurs at the Black Hebrew Israelites. Totally false,” Wood added.
“Now you say you’ve seen the tape; if you took the time to look at the full context of what happened that day, Nicholas Sandmann did absolutely nothing wrong,” he continued.
“He was, as I’ve said to others, he was the only adult in the room. But you have a situation where CNN couldn’t resist the idea that here’s a guy with a young boy, that ‘Make America Great Again’ cap on. So they go after him.”
Wood, a veteran libel and defamation attorney, said the immediacy of CNN’s coverage, combined with the fact that they didn’t check context until significantly later, was also a factor.
“The CNN folks were online on Twitter at 7 a.m. retweeting the little one-minute propaganda piece that had been put out,” Wood said. “They’re out there right away going after this young boy. And they maintain it for at least two days. Why didn’t they stop and just take an hour and look through the internet and find the truth and then report it? Maybe do that before you report the lies.”
Wood said that the suit would be filed “Monday, Tuesday at the latest.”
“I expect because of the way they went after Nicholas so viciously, that the claim for his reputational damage will be higher than it was against The Washington Post,” Wood said.
“The Post was $50 million for the reputational damage … $200 million in punitive damages — punitive damages are designed to punish and to deter.”
“I would think the punitive-damage award against CNN that we’ll seek will be at least the same $200 million as it was against The Washington Post. But the compensatory damage to Nicholas’s reputation, that number I expect will be higher,” he said.
Just as I warned readers with The Washington Post lawsuit, unless CNN self-destructs in the court of public opinion and the actual courtroom, don’t expect to see a verdict or settlement anywhere near what the suit seeks.
That said, The Post has more or less gone the self-destruction route thus far.
The newspaper’s blanket statement on their Covington coverage — which was termed an “editor’s note” and wasn’t particularly apologetic — only covered what they got wrong in the most desultory of manners. And even then, the paper seemed to think they were doing too much by issuing it.
“While we do not accept the characterizations and contentions regarding our reporting of the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, we have taken steps to address the concerns expressed to us,” Washington Post Vice President for Communications Kristine Corrati Kelly told Reason’s Robby Soave.
I compared the reaction to Gawker’s refusal to admit they’d done anything wrong during the Hulk Hogan sex tape trial, which ended up bankrupting the site. In that case, Gawker was far more cavalier about their conduct, but they were also dealing with a celebrity who wasn’t a minor. The situation here is clearly different.
We’ll find out more later this week when the suit is filed, obviously. However, whatever the particulars, I’d like to posit that this could be the media’s Waterloo when it comes to coverage of President Donald Trump.
Conservatives have always called out media bias and liberals have always wondered where the bias is. As for the rest of America, they seem to be losing trust in the media as an institution.
In a 2018 Gallup poll, newspapers and television news were two of the four lowest-ranked institutions in terms of trust in America, keeping company with the criminal justice system and the ever-popular folks in Congress.
Nevertheless, whatever narrative-building manipulation had eroded trust in the media thus far, at least it was being done with adults.
That changed with Covington, particularly when it came out that the short video the controversy had been based on was part of a longer incident and that the word of Nathan Phillips — taken as gospel by the media and quickly destroyed by additional footage — was mostly counterfactual.
If CNN and other outlets take the lead set by The Washington Post — a non-apology apology which they openly say they didn’t really want to give anyway — this won’t end well.
Whether it ends with a huge verdict is another issue entirely, but the loss in the court of public opinion could be catastrophic.
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