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Potential legal issues for Occam's News? #128

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scripting opened this issue Aug 27, 2019 · 4 comments

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@scripting
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commented Aug 27, 2019

A "braintrust query" for lawyers.

I've been writing about the concept of Occam's News, a service that only writes about what's obviously true. Doesn't bother with official statements or press releases. We don't interview people on the record. It disclaims up front that it follows standard journalistic practices. It doesn't.

  1. For example, it's obvious that Trump is a Russian oligarch. He meets all the qualifications. So we say that's what he is, in addition to being president of the United States. All our reporting starts with that premise, and reports Russian and American policy as linked. It's news when they deviate.

  2. We also assume that climate change is real. It's never subject to question in our reporting.

  3. "Moscow Mitch" is a popular example of Occam's News philosophy. The guy is owned by Moscow. He doesn't hide it.

So the question for lawyers is what are the legal risks?

It's not satire, not meant to be humorous (though of course sometimes the truth is funny).

@chris0s

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commented Aug 28, 2019

Dave,

I'm a lawyer (and even a law professor, part-time). I do not specialize in First Amendment law, but I am generally aware of how it works in this space. The below isn't legal advice; it's more an effort to frame a discussion around the general law applicable here.

There is a vast amount of law on what one can say about "public figures" without incurring defamation liability. The standard statement is that one is only subject to defamation liability with respect to statements about public figures that are made with "actual malice," which is typically defined as a statement that either (a) you know is false or (b) you make with "reckless disregard" for whether it is true or not.

As you might imagine, it gets enormously complicated in practice. Is a statement one of fact or opinion? To use one of your examples, look at the statement "Trump is a Russian oligarch." What facts about the world is that statement reasonably conveying? That Trump is a member of a small group of people that rule Russia? That Trump is, himself, Russian? Just reacting personally (based on the news and commentary of the day), calling him a "Russian oligarch" seems more to be saying something like, "Trump's primary loyalty is to Russia and Putin, not to the US." But obviously we can't know what Trump subjectively feels or thinks. So is it saying, "Trump's actions suggest that his primary loyalty is to Russia and Putin, not to the US?" That of course is vaguer and less factual -- lots of things suggest lots of other things.

None of this is to say that you can't have a news service with a clear set of editorial views and assumptions. Basically all news services do. But it's important in looking at anything one publishes to distinguish between factual statements about the world, characterizations of those facts, opinions about those facts, inferences from those facts, etc.

Chris S.

@scripting

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commented Aug 29, 2019

@chris0s -- thanks for chiming in!

If you asked me how Occam's News knows that Trump is a Russian oligarch (or TIARO) this is what I would say.

  1. First there is no obligation that ON disclose how they know that TIARO. Our motto is YMMV.

  2. I would use a mathematical proof by contradiction. How do I know TIARO? Because his behavior and the behavior of others (e.g., Deutsche Bank) can be explained no other way.

  3. Remember the Helsinki press conference? For me, that was the moment of proof. No question there was a boss on that stage, and it wasn't Trump.

This is not "all news services" -- it would stand alone by using this method. Eventually the practice, hopefully, would seep into journalism and they'd stop waiting until they could prove something in a court of law before assuming it to be true.

@scripting

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commented Aug 29, 2019

Anyway to be clear -- the whole point is that we're not going to be able to prove anything, so don't ask us how we know. We'll stay silent on that. That's the whole premise of the news service. All we're reporting is what's obvious. To us. No malice. This is a public service. Take it for what it's worth. Your mileage may vary.

@prk60091

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commented Aug 30, 2019

As much as I agree with your politics, I do not think you can call that news--something that is not proveable is an opinion (just ask my wife)

As a retired lawyer - I think ON would be on shaky legal ground (cavaet: I never practiced defamation law).

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