In political writing, investigative journalism and satire, the subject of the story is often cast in a light he or she does not like. If the piece is outrageously untrue, as often happens in satire, a good-natured subject, while irked, will respond with humor. It takes the heat off, diffuses whatever power the writing may have and puts the subject in a positive light, showing she is a good sport.
However, if there is truth to the story, post or article, as quite often with leaks of information, it is in the best interest of the subject to make the story go away as quickly as possible. The subject may attempt to destroy the credibility of the writer through bullying and intimidation. Famous cases abound, but one that most often comes to mind is that of The Pentagon Papers.
The Pentagon Papers
For those not students of history, or old enough to remember, The Pentagon Papers, officially titled United States – Vietnam Relations, 1945–1967: A Study Prepared by the Department of Defense, is a U.S. Department of Defense history of the United States’ political-military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.
A guy named Daniel Ellsberg, working on a secret committee for the DoD, photocopied and released information that indicated the U.S. had secretly expanded the scale of the Vietnam War with bombings of nearby Cambodia and Laos, coastal raids on North Vietnam, and Marine Corps attacks. At the time, Congress was in the dark, and none of the events were reported in the mainstream media. Ellsberg released the information first in 1969 to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 1971 he gave it to the New York Times, the Washington Post and 17 other newspapers. The government was seriously pissed. So they sought to discredit Ellsberg, first, by breaking into his psychiatrist’s office to gain access to his medical records. You can read all about the break-in here in, “The Break-In the History Forgot” in the New York Times. The actions led to the Watergate Scandal, and ultimately the impeachment of Richard Nixon. But it also kept Ellsberg out of jail. Because the government had indicted him for his disclosure of the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was initially charged with conspiracy, espionage and theft of government property, conviction of which, was a possible 115 years in jail. Governments do not like leaks, especially those that put its administrations in a negative light. More recent evidence is the case of Edward Snowden.
Negative Press about Individuals or Companies
But suppose the government is not the subject, suppose it is an individual or a corporation? Corporations and public persons often engage Public Relations firms to manage the fallout. Good PR firms know the best way to deal with the situation is to meet it head on, and try to dispose of it right away. Ignoring it can give it legs, but overreacting can make it even worse. PR firms will ask the offended party to look at the information and evaluate the impact on its reputation. Is the article outrageous? Someone’s opinion? Based in fact? Or perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above?
If none of the information is true, the smart response for the offended is to contact the writer and ask for an explanation, and an opportunity to tell her side of the story. If that step is ineffective, the subject of the negative article will sometimes comment on the story through Letters to the Editor, or by commenting directly on a blog. Carefully crafted comments, either through good-natured humor, or openness and honesty go miles toward diffusing the situation and gaining the respect of the subject’s peers or the publication’s readers.
Overreaction tends to telegraph that there is at least some truth to the article, and might make the writer, or other writers dig deeper. Those with something to hide will often issue threats either themselves, or through intermediaries. “You’ll never work in this town again!” to actors, “You’ll never get another product sample!” to reviewers, and “Everyone will hate you!” to those in close-knit communities or “I’m drafting up papers right now, I am going to SUE!”
Close-knit communities are often the worst. There is a woman in the community where I live. She is involved in low-level politics, and she is in a position of nominal power. Power which she abuses right and left with the utmost hypocrisy. This is a woman who is the first to report a neighbor’s potential infraction to the Homeowner’s Association — be it a cracked sidewalk, a mis-parked car or a yard whose grass is an inch too high. Yet her own home is in HOA violation six ways to Sunday. I’ve gone toe-to-toe with her several times over the years, but she will always retaliate. Many suggest I run against her for office. But few others stand up to her. Few challenge her for her political seat, even though most folks would like to see this bully go.
Why? Because the woman likes to file lawsuits. She is even rumored to have threatened a lawsuit against an opponent who sent a group political email. The substance of the email was true. I do not think that she has ever prevailed in any of her legal challenges. But quite frankly, over the years most find life easier if they simply ignore her. Not because she is right, but because dealing with her is more of a pain in the ass than ignoring her and letting her keep her relatively small fiefdom.
Responding to Intimidation and Lawsuits
Say you’re a blogger or writer. You post something someone does not like. She wants it gone and will use any means necessary to make it go away — because it is negative and highlights some issues she would rather not have in the spotlight. What should you, as the writer, do? Here are some ways to respond.
Re-evaluate the Story and Make Corrections, if Necessary
Go back and look at your story. If it is in a printed piece, and you have egregious errors, your publication may want to issue a retraction. If your piece is in a digital publication, it is easier to make corrections. How you do this depends on your publication’s policy. Corrections in spelling and typos can often simply be corrected in the existing piece. Major errors like dates, times, names and details should be included with notation that the story has been updated, so it will not look like you were trying to hide your own errors. Many blogs do this by putting changes in either the top or the bottom, with Update: and the date of the changes in italics.
Issue an Apology
Sometimes, after it is brought to your attention, you re-evaluate your writing and realize that you were wrong. Maybe you had some facts correct, but the way you framed them was lacking, or overly harsh. Maybe you thought you were being funny, but it simply did not come off that way to others. It can be painful, but often best to fall on one’s sword, and issue a Mea culpa. Especially if it was an honest mistake, poor editing, or you were simply wrong, a formal apology goes a long way to restoring your own credibility as a writer and a human being. Even when you are right, sometimes an apology is necessary to restore harmony in the community. It won’t will you any awards, but the bigger man will suck it up, do it and move on.
She Says She Will Sue
Sometimes, despite your best efforts in correcting a story, or issuing a formal apology, the story’s subject is not satisfied. Perhaps she is out for blood. Perhaps her spouse has been shouting, “You were wronged! Stand up to that so-and-so and fight back!” Maybe a self-interested adviser has been fanning the flames — because she too would like the facts of the post to disappear. Or maybe, the offended is a sanctimonious ass who wields power in his own little fiefdom. Perhaps he does not want people asking questions about whys and wherefores, so even after a formal apology insists he is going to sue!
Take Down the Post
As many of my neighbors have discovered, when you are sued the issue is not whether the person can win. The First Amendment gives the press a good deal of latitude, and while lower courts will sometimes find for the offended, higher courts often reverse in favor of the writer. If you decide the issue is one of utmost importance, that it must be published come hell or high water, then by all means stick to your guns and fight any lawsuit in court. Because the truth is a powerful defense.
But if you find yourself up against a lady who loves to file lawsuits and has powerful lawyers as allies, ask yourself is it worth it to spend your time and money fighting? Is your post that important to Truth, Justice and the American Way? Or is it something of little significance to many outside a small group? If so, save yourself the headache and take the post down. Because bad acts have a way of coming to light. Maybe not on your time-table. Maybe even not in your lifetime. But eventually the truth will come out.
Because hubris may be a powerful elixir but karma, she is a bitch.
Note: While I am a practicing attorney, this not meant to be legal advice. I am licensed to practice in the State of Texas, only, and every case is different — so if you do find yourself in this situation, please consult a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction. A story about one attorney who helps bloggers fight powerful intimidators is here.