The National Post devoted just 160 words to the news it had lost a defamation suit launched by Victoria climate scientist and Green MLA Andrew Weaver and had to pay him $50,000. Even that brief report didn’t come until two days after other media reported the B.C. Supreme Court decision.
It was a striking contrast to the Post coverage when television personality Ezra Levant lost a similar defamation suit in November. That was big news and reported in an 800-word article.
The piece had a catchy headline “Levant guilty of defamation, must pay $80K; 'Reckless.'” The lead was dramatic. “In his blogging about Canada's hate speech laws, rightwing personality Ezra Levant defamed a young law student as a serial liar, a bigot and a Jew-hating ‘illiberal Islamic fascist,’ bent on destroying Canada's tradition of free expression, a judge has found.
The Post’s coverage of its own defamation defeat wasn’t just shorter, it was duller.
The headline was “Climate scientist wins defamation suit against National Post.” The lead lacked the Levant story’s flair. “A B.C. Supreme Court judge has ordered the National Post to pay climate scientist Andrew Weaver $50,000 in damages in a defamation suit over articles published in 2009 and 2010,” the Post reported tersely.
The Levant judgment was more damning. But a finding that the Post and three of its writers - including the business editor - all defamed Weaver seems like big enough news to rate more than six paragraphs.
And when the Post decided to appeal the judgment this week, that rated a story twice as long as the original story on the verdict.
Not to single out the National Post. Generally, the news media can dish it out, but aren’t so good at taking it.
The Toronto Star ran a seriously flawed article on Gardasil vaccines last month. The front-page play and banner headline - “A wonder drug’s dark side” - suggested great importance. The stories of young women who suffered serious problems after vaccination were heartrending.
They far overshadowed the story’s cautions that, despite the headline, there was no established link between any of the women’s illnesses and the vaccination. There was overwhelming scientific consensus the vaccine is safe and effective.
The article drew immediate criticism. And The Star’s reaction was to deny any possible problem and to bash the critics. Editor Michael Cooke indulged in insulting Twitter exchanges. Columnist Heather Mallick responded with a generally baffling piece. The Gardasil vaccine story, she wrote “was not about the drug itself — it is safe and effective — but about parents and girls not always being told what they need to know in order to make informed decisions, and being dismissed by doctors when they became terribly ill.”
It’s impossible to reconcile that claim with the actual headline or the story.
And Mallick dismissed one critic of the story casually. “Here’s a tip: don’t read a website run by a rural doctor whose slogan is ‘wielding the lasso of truth,’” she wrote. Leaving aside the assumption that rural doctors know nothing, Dr. Jen Gunter is an ob-gyn certified in Canada and the U.S. and practises in San Francisco.
The Star eventually admitted it blew the story. The public editor set out the problems, the publisher apologized.
But the first response was self-righteous defensiveness, and attacks on anyone who dared criticize.
That’s a newsroom instinct. Partly, it’s justified. Anyone who has spent time in news management has faced pressure from the powerful, or people who think they are powerful. Managers know staff are watching to see if they cave.
But it’s also a way of avoiding justified criticism, or self-examination.
There was a legitimate story in The Star report, especially around the level of informed consent. But it was lost in the torqued presentation. The point of the story, to any reasonable reader, was that the HPV vaccine Gardasil could leave you terribly sick and permanently injured. There is no evidence that is true, and noting that in a few paragraphs is not enough.
The Globe and Mail’s response to columnist Margaret Wente’s serial plagiarism followed the same pattern of initial defensiveness and dismissal of the person pointing out the problem. (An “anonymous blogger,” the Globe’s public editor sniffed.) There is an instant tendency to reject any criticism as uninformed or malicious, attack the critics and claim some imaginary high ground.
The news media got away with that kind response in the old days, when they were more powerful and critics had a hard time finding a platform.
But times have changed. Wente’s serial plagiarism was discovered and documented by Carol Wainio, an artist and university professor. She shared it on her blog and the compelling evidence was widely shared on the Internet.
Attacking the messenger doesn’t work when people can see the evidence for themselves.
It’s a welcome development. Newspapers can quit funding ineffectual press councils (as the major daily newspapers in British Columbia have already done). News media no longer need public editors or ombudspeople or readers’ representatives.
If they mess up, they will be held to account in public forums. News media that welcome the new accountability and the chance to learn from mistakes - which are inevitable - will increase their engagement with their audiences.
And those that opt for defensiveness or unjustified attacks on critics will find credibility fading away.