Can the author of an Op-Ed piece lie?

I am trying to find out if it is acceptable journalism, or for that matter even legal for a newspaper to print an opinion article that is factually incorrect.

If I write in to the NY Times, or any other newspaper and they print my article I can have any wild opinion that I like. However, what if I make statements that are factually incorrect?

If somone claims makes allegations of child molestation, for instance, or otherwise make damaging allegations that are not true can they be sued for slander? Can the newspaper be?

To be honest, I get most of my news from TV and online. I don’t really read papers, and am just wondering how the opinion section works.

Yes, as long as it’s not libelous or slanderous.

I see complete and total lies all the time in OpEd sections. Many of the nationally syndicated columnists regularly make statements that are not just false, but which they definitely know are false.

But that is not the same as libel (in all cases). You and the newspaper can be sued for libel.

topical lies are common, lies directed at persons or institutions are not.

[George Costanza]
“Remember, Jerry: It’s not a lie… if you believe it.”
[/George Costanza]

The “Op” in “Op-Ed” is short for “opinion,” which is not necessarily truth or even vaguely true. The “Ed” is short for “editorial,” which is a fifty-cent journalistic euphemism for “opinion,” originally referring to an editor’s opinion.

As long as an Op-Ed is clearly called out as such, I think a writer can say pretty much what he/she wants in one. The real problem lies in the fact that an awful lot of what should be called out as Op-Ed material winds up in “news” articles.

Or you get a newspaper like the Toronto Star, which more and more frequently publishes op-eds on the front page. Bleah. I want news on the front page, commentary later.

I think if something slanderous or libelous is published, i.e. if the writer said something nasty about someone without proof, the paper or the writer could get sued. Libel is libel.

Some papers have disclaimers saying that the content of editorial pieces is not necessarily the view held by the paper or publisher; so maybe that means ‘if you have to sue someone, sue the columnist’.

Well, it will not really be criminally illegal, but if you libel someone you will be open to a civil suit. So if in your example you claimed someone was a child molester, they could sue you (and probably win).

Even if you don’t libel someone, you will still more than likely lose your job if you’re employed by the paper. Here in Boston, a Globe columnist lost her job after it was discovered she had fabricated quotes to bolster her argument in a column.

Also, slander is spoken, libel is printed. You don’t slander someone in a newspaper column, you libel them.

In most newspapers, there is an “Ed” page and an “Op-Ed” page. The former is usually on the left side and has the newspapers unsigned editorials and the letters to the editor and, depending upon the paper’s policies, an editorial cartoon.

The “Op-Ed” page is usually on the right and has signed articles by individual writers, many of them syndicated.

The same journalistic standards for libel, etc. apply to that page as they do to any other part of the paper. In fact, articles in Op-Ed are probably subject to more scrutiny, than say, the Sports section.

If a paper ran a libelous op-ed piece by a syndicated columnist, I would think the “libelee” would go after the syndicate rather than the paper it ran in. I don’t know if such action would be Federal or State.

Are you familiar with the work of Cal Thomas?

And to follow a man on the right that I don’t like with a man on the left that I don’t like, I offer Robert Fisk. Those two seem to me to be two sides of the same coin.

Those two are the first that come to mind that either lie or majorly distort.

That disclaimer means nothing in a libel suit. The newspaper is still the one who published the libel, meaning they are on the hook.

And to clarify, simply saying something nasty without proof is not libel. Here’s what a plaintiff has to prove to win a libel suit:

  1. defamation–the plaintiff was defamed
  2. identification–the plaintiff was the one defamed
  3. publication–the defamation was published
  4. falsity–the burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove that the defamation was false
  5. personal harm as a result of the defamation

In addition, public figures must also show proof of “actual malice”–that the defamation was published even though the publisher knew it was false or acted with a reckless disregard for the truth.

I have no problem with the Star printing opinions on the front page. Problem is, that the Star seems to frequently “forget” to list them as opinions, with the results that many readers mistake the front-page opinions as news, and shape their views accordingly.

No, a columnist or opinion writer or anybody whose item appears on the opinion-editorial page is entitled to whatever views they wish to have–or that the paper’s editor has told them to have–no matter how erroneous the facts upon which they base their views are. Whether it’s on the op-ed page of the Toronto Star (or even the Toronto Sun, which is the antithesis of the Star), as long as libel is avoided, columnists can say what they like.

The way I see it, the responsibility lies with the reader to say either “What a crock,” or “What a great insight,” as the reader feels.

In my mention of Fisk earlier, I find that the Independent in the UK is really bad about this.

I agree with you, though. It is as much on the readers to be able to critically read and analyze the piece as it should be for the writers to represent the facts, albeit with spin. Unfortunately, neither of these things seem to happen.

I am not familiar with Cal Thomas.

So, unless there is an actual case for libel meeting those five points (Thanks, ElwoodCuse) then basically anthing can be said.

How about letters to the editor? Do/Should newspapers make decisions on whether or not to print letters based on the credibility of the claims within them?

If someone writes a well written letter arguing against, say, Bush’s tax cut, but embelishes the amounts involved. Can the newspaper still print it? It’s not like the administration is going to sue for libel. Because it’s just an average Joe writing the letter, there isn’t any issues of reputation to lose. Can/should the newspaper not print something in an opinion piece that they know is factually incorrect?

I really don’t think that’s the case.

As I mentioned, 2 Boston Globe columnists, Mike Barnicle and Patricia Smith, were fired for printing factually untrue statements in their columns. Barnicle claimed he’d never read a book he had appeared on TV reviewing, and Smith fabricated quotes and people in her columns.

The Smith case seems to be exactly what the OP is asking about. Barnicle lied in furtherance of other offenses (plagarism) so that’s not as clear cut, but Smith really did nothing more and nothing less than make up facts to bolster her arguments, invent people she claimed to have interviewed, and fabricate quotes from people both real and imaginary.

racekarl, it’s funny. I live in the Boston area and haven’t heard of this before. I have listened to Mike Barnicle on the radio before, though.

I agree, it sounds like what these two wrote in the op-ed pages caused them to lose thier jobs. However, it seems that the only reason this happened was the newspaper decided to fire them.

Basically, the papers can print whatever they like. Free speech and all that. However, one would hope that journalists would show some sense of honesty by fact checking what goes in thier papers. Even if it is an opinion piece.

For instance, someone wants to write “George Bush is the worst president ever.” Is fine. That’s an opinion, not a fact.

But if they write: “George Bush cheated on his SAT’s in high school.” One would think that some kind of proof would be required by the paper before printing such an allegation.

There have already been some hijacks here, which was probably inevitable. I’ll TRY to stick to facts.

Whether one likes Cal Thomas or Robert Fisk (or George Will or Bob Herbert, or whoever) or not, catching them in a “lie” can be tricky. If Bob Herbert writes “George W. Bush is an evil tyrant who wants to starve children and oppress non-white peoples around the world,” is that a “lie”? If Cal Thomas writes, “Bill Clinton is an immoral sleazebag who sold out American security,” is that a “lie”?

Hyperbole, perhaps. Mean-spirited distortion, yes. But would either columnist be committing a crime? No. There’s no way either man would be prosecuted. And since Bush and Clinton are both public figures, they wouldn’t get very far with a libel suit.

Now, what if an Op-Ed columnist or cartoonist makes specific, (supposedly) factual statements that almost certainly aren’t true and can’t possibly be proven? Well, there’s no CRIMINAL penalty for that. So, suppose Tom Tomorrow says, “George W. Bush KNEW about the pending attack on the WTC, but did nothing to prevent it.” Or, suppose William Safire writes, “Hillary Clinton had Vince Foster murdered.”

Could either Tomorrow or Safire go to jail? Nope. Would Bush have a libel case to make against Tomorrow? Would Safire be subject to a libel suit from Hillary Clinton? Almost certainly not. Since both Bush and Clinton are public figures, the rules for libel suits are very tough. Not only does a public figure have to PROVE that what the columnist said was false, he must also prove that

  1. The columnist KNEW what he was saying was false, and
  2. The columnist published that falsehood with the specific intent of damaging the public figure’s reputation.

So, suing an Op-Ed columnist for libel is highly problematic. Nearly impossible, in fact.

So, the short answer to the OP is… yes. Op-Ed writers can lie, and sometimes do. There’s NOTHING the criminal justice system can do about that, and civil suits usually won’t work.

The only ways to combat “lies” are:

  1. Put pressure on the publishers and syndicators. Even “biased” publishers don’t generally want to be seen as scurrilous rags that publish obvious untruths. Opposite though they may be, neither “The Nation” nor “National Review” is likely to keep a columnist who makes up news stories.

  2. Use the media that are more sympathetic to your side to get YOUR version of events out there.

OK, how about non-political figures.

I send a letter in to my local paper and write that my neighbor, Bob is a child molestor. I have no proof, and offer no facts to back it up.

Can my newspaper print it? If they do, who can be sued for libel? The paper for printing it? Or me for writing it?

Do newspapers screen the letters that they print for such things?

Debaser, the Smith scanadal came to a head in 1998, when she was finally let go, and it was revealed she had fabricated facts in the Globe going back to 1995, and even in her former job in Chicago.

Here’s an interesting link with a chronology of the Smith and Barnicle incidents if you’re interested:

Timeline of Globe scandals

I’m not sure of the point of this site, and this link definately has some editorialzing to it, but the timeline and facts are OK.

Interestingly, it also mentions a New Republic author fired for inventing facts, and mentions that Smith was stripped of her journalism awards as well.

I would think that if you wrote a letter accusing your neighbor of being a child molester that the paper would not publish it, because it seems to pass all the tests required for libel. If it did get through I imagine both you and the paper would be open to a lawsuit by your neighbor.

Heh, you keep coming back to this point. Is there something you’re plotting there? :wink: