ABC News might wish it was headquartered in Texas, if a new Texas law goes into effect. The Disney Company’s news network is facing a $1.2 billion lawsuit for defamation brought by BPI for the networks “Pink Slime” coverage. (see previous post). The proposed Texas law could protect it by giving ABC, and all other news outlets the opportunity to retract false reporting to avoid defamation damages. (This story from Nieman got the sub-head wrong I believe, suggesting they could retract to “receive” punitive damages, when I think they meant to say “reduce.”)
Anyone who visits here frequently knows that one of my main beefs is the sensationalized and often mightily inaccurate reporting that constitutes one of the greatest risks for those concerned about their reputations. So, this would seem good news. Yet I am also philosophically highly skeptical of legal and regulatory responses to problems. We can’t remove all risk and take away everything that bothers us through legislation or ever more powerful government regulations.
So, is this Texas idea a good one or a bad one? I think the law of unintended consequences may take effect here. If this kind of legislation is widespread it will no doubt give encouragement to any and all who have a beef with the way they are covered in news reports. And, as has happened far too much in our legal system, the cost of litigation becomes a primary driver in making decisions what to do about it. That means that news organizations will quickly retract, correct, and go along with a complaint about their coverage even if they feel the complaint is not justified. The threat of being dragged into court is just too expensive. The end result of a bunch of these “business decision retractions” will be to stifle press freedom and cause further loss of trust–both in the press and the organizations complaining.
I honestly don’t think we need a legislative solution to the problem of “ratings chasing” and the often disgusting news coverage that results from it. What we need is an informed news viewer and the ability of those aggrieved to take their case directly to the only court that really matters: the court of public opinion. But as Elon Musk recently showed, brands and organizations have that ability now. They just need to exercise that freedom–and keep the legislators out of it.