In chapter four of “Freedom for the Thought We Hate” by Anthony Lewis, a case that I found incredibly interesting was New York Times v. Sullivan. This case was, (for lack of a better word,) huge. It took all the ancient libel precedents and threw them out the window. I really liked how Lewis connected this case with Woodward and Bernstein’s work on Watergate. 15-year-old me reading “All the President’s Men” for the first time and falling in love with journalism is jumping out of her seat. Without this ruling, I think that Nixon’s corruption would never have been revealed.
On the flip side, however, Lewis does point out the downfalls of New York Times v. Sullivan. As Justice Black said, “Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government.” However, a completely unrestrained press doesn’t always lead to thorough investigative journalism and revealment of corruption– sometimes media outlets print things that are just not true. Especially now with the Internet, where information can be shared globally faster than you can say quidditch, inaccurate or exaggerated reporting can be deadly. A recent example that comes to mind is the 2016 “pizzagate” conspiracy theory. White supremacists on websites like 4chan, 8chan, and Twitter shared “proof” that, according to emails distributed by WikiLeaks, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was engaged in a child sex-trafficking ring that ran out of a pizza restaurant in Washington, D.C. Popular alt-right media outlets like InfoWars, Planet Free Will, and The Vigilant Citizen ran with pizzagate, discussing it as a confirmed story. It even went so far that a man showed up to the restaurant in D.C. with a shotgun and fired it inside the pizza joint, luckily harming no one. It is hard to defend such lax restrictions on journalistic libel when media outlets report on stories like this that are patently false as truth.
Although, according to the New York Times v. Sullivan ruling, Clinton couldn’t sue InfoWars, Planet Free Will, or The Vigilant Citizen for libel, they were certainly tried in the court of public opinion. Alex Jones, figurehead of InfoWars, very quickly became a meme. All of the alt-right “news” sources that propagated pizzagate lost sponsors and advertisers and were generally regarded as untrustworthy sources.It’s unfortunate that dangerous “fake news” reporting like pizzagate is protected by the sweeping Sullivan ruling. Luckily, quality reporting that works tirelessly to expose wrongdoing and make its readers well-informed on situations like pizzagate is also protected by the same ruling. I think at the end of the day, that makes all the difference. As Justice Brandeis famously said, “sunlight is the most powerful of all disinfectants.”