King opened the CNN debate by asking Gingrich if he cared to respond to what was the political story of the day — salacious allegations by Gingrich’s ex-wife Marianne Gingrich that the politician many years ago requested an “open marriage” arrangement between himself, his wife and his girlfriend.
Appearing agitated, Gingrich unleashed on King, “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, and harder to attract decent people to run for office. I’m appalled you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.”
King’s question was, in the twice-divorced and thrice-married Gingrich’s estimation, “as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
It’s a familiar posture for Gingrich. In practically every Republican presidential debate since he entered the race, Gingrich has played the role of news media scold. In an early January debate during a discussion on thorny social issues, Gingrich wished “to raise the point about the news media bias.”
In one 2011 debate, Gingrich warned a member of the news media to “put aside the gotcha questions.” In another, he said to a moderator, “I, for one, and I hope that all of my friends up here are going to repudiate every effort of the news media to get Republicans to fight each other to protect Barack Obama, who deserves to be defeated.”
Clearly, the man has some issues with the news media. Gingrich might not like it, but journalists have a constitutional right to write and report the news. Many, including your faithful correspondent, contend a free press is critical for a well-functioning democracy.
This point was brought home recently with the latest news about Anniston City Councilman Ben Little’s lawsuit against this newspaper. While Gingrich raises a fuss over reporters, he has thus far avoided taking his complaints into the legal system.
We’re not so lucky here at The Anniston Star.
For the past three years, Little has waged a legal fight against this newspaper. Little ultimately failed in his claims that he was libeled by The Star, but the victory was expensive.
The latest development came last week when a Calhoun County circuit judge ordered the councilman to pay $3,263.63 in legal fees to the newspaper. It’s a win for this newspaper — and honest practitioners of journalism everywhere. Though, in light of the $72,000 this newspaper was forced to spend to defend itself in the courts, it is more symbolic than compensatory.
How did we get here? How did this hollow case that failed even the most basic standards of established libel law get to this point? Why did the usual political complaints against a newspaper end up wasting so much time and money?
A brief timeline is handy. In February 2009, The Star quoted one of Little’s council colleagues, John Spain, regarding Anniston hiring an independent contractor to review city government’s personnel policies. Spain mentioned rumors that Little and the contractor had a personal relationship. Spain did not assert the rumors were true, merely that they should be looked into. When asked about them by a Star reporter, Little responded, “I’ve never had a relationship with that girl.”
That story and newspaper editorials criticizing Little’s conduct in office were the basis of the councilman’s May 2009 lawsuit against the newspaper, and only the newspaper. He did not sue Spain, who raised questions about Little and the woman hired to review the city’s HR policies. He didn’t sue TV24, the local television station that also aired Spain’s remarks.
Several factors were aligned against Little. At the top of the list were the triggers the U.S. Supreme Court says expose journalists to libel charges. The accuser must prove the news organization published something about a public official with the “knowledge that statements are false or in reckless disregard of the truth,” according to the 1964 case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.
For Little to win would mean the Supreme Court had reversed its long-standing views of what constitutes libel. That did not happen. In a March 2010 summary judgment, Calhoun County Circuit Judge Malcolm B. Street Jr. ruled in favor of the newspaper. Little pursued several appeals that prolonged the case until last November, when the state Supreme Court dismissed the case.
As Dennis Bailey, the newspaper’s attorney, has written, Little’s failed legal action “was expensive, contentious and unpleasant for the subjects of the suit and even their lawyers.”
Three years and thousands of dollars in legal fees were spent by this newspaper defending itself against a politician looking to take his political fight into the courts in order to enlist the state’s help in quieting a critical voice. The Star has a spot reserved for political fighting. We call them letters to the editor, and each day everyone — politicians included — are welcome to have their say about the newspaper or anything else on their minds. Seems to us it would have been a lot easier, not to mention cheaper, for Little to have written a letter to the editor to The Star.
Bob Davis is editor of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at: twitter.com/EditorBobDavis.