Unhappy with the alleged bias of CNN, President Trump is again threatening to sue the cable news giant. But his otherwise accomplished lawyer, Charles Harder, is not pursuing the legal claim that aggrieved parties typically pursue when they feel dissed by the news media – which would be a suit for libel (aka defamation; see a description of libel laws here). Mr. Harder is taking a different approach.
A letter sent by Harder states that the president has been the target of “unfair, unfounded, unethical and unlawful attacks by the so-called ‘mainstream news.’” And this, Harder claims, contradicts CNN’s purported mission to be “the most trusted source for news and information” which has a “commitment to the truth and to facts.”
Harder says it also runs counter to CNN’s statements of being “truly fair and balanced” and that it violates the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which include guidelines that the news media should “never deliberately distort facts or context.”
Perhaps realizing that a libel suit – which would require a showing that statements critical of the president were false and defamatory – would be frivolous, Harder instead invokes a claim of “false advertising.” He says CNN’s touting of its “neutral” and “unbiased” reporting misrepresents what the outlet actually says about the president.
The president’s lawyer further alleges that the president “has been the subject of such a sustained barrage of unfair, unfounded, unethical and unlawful attacks by the so-called ‘mainstream’ news,” perhaps especially by CNN.
CNN responded tersely. “This is nothing more than a desperate PR stunt and doesn’t merit a response.”
CNN is correct. And Trump’s lawyer must know it.
Even if it’s true that CNN is biased, biased reporting is firmly protected by the First Amendment. Biased factual reporting (never mind biased opinions) is protected by those on the right and the left and everywhere in between.
From The Wall Street Journal to The New York Times and The Washington Post, from Fox News to MSNBC and CNN, from the National Review magazine to Mother Jones, all are protected by the First Amendment. They can be as slanted and biased and outrageous as they want to be. Their only real impediment: truthfulness. Falsities can be subject to legitimate repercussions. But opinions cannot.
The same goes for individuals. You can utter biased, racist, and vile disgusting stuff. In and of itself, that is not unlawful. You may be ostracized by society for doing so, and often rightly so. But, generally speaking, you can’t be thrown in jail for it.
The fact that Trump’s lawyer claims CNN is violating a non-profit journalism organization’s Code of Ethics is equally laughable. He provides a web address to the Code and recites various provisions he claims CNN is violating. Perhaps conveniently, he omits entirely SPJ’s caution that a “Code of Ethics” does NOT constitute legal requirements. They are merely journalistic guidelines. They have no force as a matter of law
That’s free speech. It may not always be the right thing to do. But you ain’t going to jail if you violate that advice.