As you’ve no doubt heard by now former Presidential Aide Sid Blumenthal yesterday agreed to drop his libel suit against Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report and also agreed to pay $2500 to one of Drudge’s lawyers, Manny Klausner, to reimburse him for travel expenses. The travel expenses were to attend a deposition conducted by Blumenthal’s lawyers — a deposition in which the person to be deposed ended up not showing up.
Now, as you probably already know, I am anything but a neutral observer of this whole case. And I don’t pretend to be unbiased.
Having said all that, however, I couldn’t help but respond to what Andrew Sullivan said about the denouement of this case on his site today, basically arguing that Blumenthal was wrong to ever file his suit in the first place.
As as journalist – especially as one that runs a vaguely-Drudge-like website – I’m not a fan of libel suits. Journalists are supposed to be against them as a rule. I always felt a bit conflicted even about this one. I shudder to think, for instance, of getting sued for millions of dollars because someone gives me a bad tip and I print it. Then again I don’t think I would post something so damaging with no evidence.
(Only my utter lack of any assets to lose gives me some small solace.)
But I have to say that I think Blumenthal really had no choice but to file this suit.
When someone says person X is guilty of beating his wife, do you believe them? Obviously, it depends on who’s being charged and who’s making the charge. But even if you figure it’s not true I think the undeniable reality is that after such a charge is made most of us figure, well … I maybe 5% believe it. Probably no, but who knows? Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And so forth.
Isn’t this true?
Even after Drudge took back the allegation and apologized, I think that still applies. Because you figure, well … maybe there was something to it, but he got sued and he didn’t have hard evidence to prove it, so he folded his cards.
I don’t know that there was any way for Blumenthal truly to clear his name beyond doggedly pursuing this case — a process which would of course allow Drudge’s attorneys to conduct extensive depositions and discovery, and find any evidence of abuse, if there was any to be found.
So that’s point number one.
There’s also a tendency I think to downplay, or forget, or make light of just how scurrilous and damaging a charge this was. As a liberal political journalist, and then as an appointee to the president who signed the Violence Against Women Act it’s just not too much to say that this charge would have destroyed Blumenthal, and made him a political untouchable. No question.
Obviously too, the charge itself must have caused intense anguish, and mortification, and embarrassment to Blumenthal, his wife, and the rest of his family — notwithstanding the fact that the charge wasn’t true. Imagine the awkward conversations with colleagues. Friends who might actually wonder if it’s true.
Yuck. It’s a mess.
Would it really have been so hard for Drudge to apologize for this? Yes, I know he took at it all back when it first happened. But what about a formal apology to settle the case and just make clear once and for all that there was nothing to it?
(Special Alert: TPM Exclusive Coming)
Actually, in early April the two parties were apparently negotiating just such a conclusion to the case — something which I don’t believe has yet been reported. Blumenthal’s lawyers proposed Drudge issue such an apology and make a small contribution to an organization dedicated to the issue of violence against women. The two sides negotiated with the judge and the judge drew up a letter for Drudge to sign.
Let me quote from the letter (a copy of which I have in my possession) dated April 12, 2001, written by the judge, John M. Facciola. In this section Facciola writes out a suggested letter of apology by Drudge to Blumenthal:
On August 12, 1997, I published in the Drudge Report a story which stated that Sidney Blumenthal had a spousal abuse past that has been effectively covered up. The Report quoted an influential, anonymous Republican who stated that there were court records of Blumenthal’s violence against his wife.
I now appreciate that the sources who provided me with this information were advancing a political agenda and that there is no information whatsoever to support their accusations. I am not aware of any information whatsoever that Mr. Blumenthal has ever struck his wife, and I was not aware of any such information before I published the statement on the Drudge Report, other than the assertions made by my sources. I acknowledge that no information has emerged since I published the story to substantiate what the sources told me.
I appreciate how the story could have caused Mr. and Mrs. Blumenthal anguish and distress. I sincerely regret it did so.
Drudge apparently tentatively agreed to such a settlement; Blumenthal’s side agreed. But then Drudge changed his mind and refused to sign.
And after all this, Drudge basically repeated the libel by implying on his website that Blumenthal had settled the suit because Drudge was about to depose some secret, damning witness.
Really, really low.
So, yeah, libel suits are dangerous things. And pretty scary things for the editors of Talking Points. But let’s see this whole thing in perspective.
P.S. Next up TPM gets back his sense of humor and gets back to the normal fare.