The New York Times
last week received an unfavorable ruling on its motion to dismiss a libel suit filed by conservative activist group Project Veritas. There is still a possibility the paper
will win the suit, but its argument that facts presented in a news story were the personal opinions of its reporters is contrary to its journalistic mission.
Judge Charles Wood of
the New York State Supreme Court said in a March 18 ruling that the lawsuit
against the NYT
proceed, because Project Veritas submitted facts to support its claim of "actual malice" and "reckless disregard" for the truth by the paper.
The lawsuit centers on two
stories the NYT published last year about Project Veritas, which describes its undercover reporting as an effort to expose corruption and dishonesty. The first story, "Project Veritas Video
Was a 'Coordinated Disinformation Campaign,' Researchers Say" by reporter Maggie Astor, appeared on Sept. 29, followed by "Conservative News Sites Fuel Voter Fraud Misinformation" by reporter Tiffany
Hsu on Oct. 25.
Both stories covered a Project Veritas video about allegedly illegal voting practices in the congressional district of Rep. Ilhan Omar
and the Somali-American community of Minneapolis. The NYT
described the video as "deceptive," reporting that Project Veritas "claimed through unidentified sources and with no verifiable evidence" that Omar’s campaign had collected ballots
Project Veritas objected to that description in its lawsuit, which said there wasn't anything deceptive about its investigative report, and that it didn't
selectively edit or doctor interviews for the video. The centerpiece of its video was footage that Liban Mohamed, the brother-in-law of a city council candidate named Jamal Osman, had shared on
Snapchat to brag about ballot harvesting.
The NYT asked the court to throw out the case based on several arguments, including a claim that its reporting consisted of
“mere opinion incapable of being judged true or false,” as Judge Wood summarized in his ruling.
Wood objected to the paper's argument, citing its policies that
"prohibit news reporters from injecting their subjective opinions into news stories."
"Upon review of the total context and tone of the stories, which clearly disparage
Project Veritas and the video, the court concludes that a reasonable reader could very well believe that the challenged statements were conveying facts about Project Veritas," he said.
If anything, the NYT was being deceptive because its reporters failed "to note that they injected their opinions in news articles, as they now claim,” Wood said.
It's a stinging rebuke against the paper, but Project Veritas still has to clear some major hurdles to prove its case that the paper behaved with "actual malice" and showed "reckless
disregard for the truth," a standard burden in libel claims.
Still, the argument that reporters can put opinions into news articles is cynical and dispiriting, considering the
world is awash in misinformation and people's trust in the news media has deteriorated substantially.