Republicans had a big year in 2014. They firmed up their hold on the House of Representatives and made a run at taking control of the U.S. Senate.
It was just the kind of year that, historically, has produced Republican wins in the 52nd Congressional District. But Democrats held the 52nd, one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal showing, particularly in swing districts like that one.
Only a few weeks before Election Day, CNN — America’s most trusted purveyor of unverified information — broke a story revealing that a political aide to candidate Carl DeMaio had accused the openly gay Republican of sexual harassment. Given the district’s history of swinging with the national political tide, the salacious allegations that dominated the news more than likely cost DeMaio the election.
Last week, DeMaio’s accuser admitted to federal prosecutors that he lied.I manage and periodically write for a national news site headquartered here in San Diego. A few days before CNN broke this “big story,” I got a call from a trusted and credible source. He had heard the allegations from DeMaio’s aide first-hand, he believed them to be true and was prepared to deliver the scoop to the Independent Voter Network (IVN.us).
There are three reasons we didn’t write the story: (1) Although we trusted the source, we did not know if we could trust the accuser. (2) We thought a courtroom, rather than a political/media lynch mob, was the proper venue for such serious accusations. (3) The IVN Etiquette Guidelines, which govern IVN’s publishing standards, simply could not be met.
Whether you like Carl DeMaio or not, personally or politically, nothing can justify what was done to him.
But, more fundamentally for all of us, it is just another sad chapter in the rapidly deteriorating standards of modern journalism.
Freedom of speech is a pretty powerful and sacred constitutional protection in this country. In fact, the media industry under the First Amendment is the only industry in the country that is specifically afforded federal constitutional protections. The most important Supreme Court case concerning the extent to which the freedom of the press is protected was NY Times v. Sullivan (1964), which said that:
“A State cannot, under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, award damages to a public official for defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves ‘actual malice’— that the statement was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.”
In short, before every three-year-old had an iPad, before every blogger became a journalist, and before the media’s “rush to report” became the industry standard, the court gave journalists a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when it comes to writing about public persons.
The free speech standard has always been colloquially described as “you can say anything you want, but you can’t yell fire in a theater.” But today, when one reporter yells “fire” into a crowded Internet, fires break out all over the world, almost instantaneously.
The distinction in NY Times v. Sullivan, combined with changes in technology, has shifted the “freedom to be wrong” from a tool to protect the earnest attempt to uncover the truth into a license for manipulation and rumor as a surrogate for truth.
DeMaio is certainly not the first politician to be looped into a sex scandal. But, there was a time when relevance and accuracy mattered.
Dan Rather was, perhaps, the last high-profile national journalist to define his career on a standard of relevance and reasonable proof.Fifteen years ago, in the most famous and indefensible mass media overreach in American history, Dan Rather stood alone at CBS in refusing to join the nightly lynch mob accusing then-U.S. Representative Gary Condit of murder.
But, like the DeMaio story, that story was really about sex.
It was an improbable tale triggered by the death of a U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ intern named Chandra Levy. It was the most reported story, by far, in the months leading up to 9/11. And, as it turned out, virtually everything reported about the congressman turned out to be untrue, including things as simple and verifiable as his voting record to things as bizarre and complex as claims about motorcycle gangs and Middle East sex slave rings.
Condit won a large financial settlement against Dominick Dunn and the nation’s largest tabloid publisher—even in the face of the almost impossible Times v. Sullivan barrier. And while the major media outlets escaped legal culpability, they are responsible for serious consequences that resulted from it.
The media frenzy derailed a murder investigation and obscured a far more important story about incompetent and corrupt law enforcement officials.
For the Levy family, justice still lays in limbo, as an MS-13 gang member eventually convicted of Chandra Levy’s murder was recently awarded a new trial and is now seeking immediate release from prison.
For Condit, of course, his career and reputation will forever be associated with salacious and false allegations.
Like Condit, Carl DeMaio will now face a press that will close ranks. Fed by political opponents, the media will cover their tracks with stories like, “Well Maybe He Didn’t Do What We Said He Did, But He Did a Bunch of Other Stuff” and “He Just Didn’t Handle It Right.”
Whether you like DeMaio or you do not like DeMaio, last week’s admissions give him another shot at political viability. Given what was done to him, he deserves it.
What the American people deserve is a higher standard of journalism.
Editor’s note: This op-ed originally published in the San Diego City Beat on Tuesday, June 16, 2015, and has been edited for publication on IVN.