Watchdog Blog

Gilbert Cranberg: Nocera, Brisbane Should Read Times v. Sullivan

Posted at 11:07 am, August 18th, 2011
Gilbert Cranberg Mug

I did a double-take when I saw that New York Times columnist Joe Nocera had apologized for harsh criticism of the Tea Party in a column and then a quadruple take upon reading that the Times public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane, thought Nocera’s apology “reflected well on him and, I believe, on The Times, too.” (Here’s the column with the criticism; here’s the apology. And here’s the Brisbane column.)

Have Nocera and Brisbane read New York Times vs. Sullivan or have they forgotten its central holding? The case, the court said, was considered “against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust and wide open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”

Sullivan was a public official, so the court’s language reflected that fact, but its ruling, a kind of Magna Carta for opinion writers, applies across the board to discussion of public issues generally. When Nocera blasted Tea party adherents for “having waged jihad on the American people” it was fully in keeping with the caustic commentary given a green light by the high court.

The Sullivan decision, in 1964, came at a perilous time for the Times. The paper faced libel suits for its civil rights coverage that could have forced the paper to its knees. The Sullivan suit itself offered the paper an easy way out. The action was over a paid editorial ad the paper could have disavowed and apologized for; instead, it fought for its right to publish and for the right of its advertisers to have their say.

Nocera’s apology and Brisbane’s approval look mealy-mouthed by comparison. Nocera did not misrepresent any facts in his Tea Party column. It was pure opinion, expressed in the spirit of New York Times vs. Sullivan. Times writers and editors should celebrate such work, not walk away from it.

Comments are closed.

The website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.