ADVICE FROM A LIBEL LAWYER
I hope people don’t think the headline of this post is misleading. The advice to which I refer is not from me, but rather from my friend David McCraw, the deputy general counsel of the New York Times. He recently published a piece in the Times entitled “Think Like a Libel Lawyer.” It is well worth a read.
Now, the article does not advocate suing people for unflattering coverage. Indeed, the article maybe should be titled “Think Like a Libel Lawyer Who Handles Defense.” But that was probably too long. But David plays defense, not offense. He describes his role as counsel for the Times as requiring him to serve as “the story’s first and worst reader: doubtful, questioning, blind to subtlety, skeptical of the facts, regularly prodding editors and reporters to do something more or different.” He is, again in his words, a “fact cop.”
And his advice to all of us is to approach issues and stories with a “just the facts” mentality. And he notes it is a challenge in today’s tribal climate: “Journalism is hard when people feel the failure to take sides is in and of itself a surrender. It is not an easy time to be speaking up for a journalism that follows the facts wherever they lead, even if our readers (or our president) don’t want to be taken there.”
I am becoming increasingly convinced that a large swath of social media users employ it primarily to say “see, I told you.” And they like, comment upon and retweet items that reinforce their world view. Items that challenge their view get ignored. Which of course is the opposite of following facts wherever they lead.
So, here is some advice from me. Read David’s piece.