The media and misleading truth: How does libel/slander apply?

I once read a story - possibly apocryphal - in which a journalist went up to a politician and asked him a question to the effect of, “Did you take $200,000 in bribes last year?” and the politician indignantly denied taking any such bribes, and the journalist immediately published the headlines the following morning: “Politician (So-and-So) Denies Having Taken $200,000 in Bribes Last Year.”

Assuming that the politician is innocent, and the journalists’ words are technically true (the politician did deny taking bribes,) but the journalist’s intention is to obviously mislead the public into thinking the politician has done something wrong and is denying it, how do the U.S. laws of libel and slander apply here?

A politician is a “public figure.”
The standards for libel against public figures is very high - the plaintiff must prove that the accused knowingly and deliberately printed a falsehood.
So, it’s pretty unlikely that the politician would win such a case.

Reminds me of this:

I’m no lawyer, but Google was smart enough to return the idea of “defamation by implication.”

One particular google hit is interesting: a 2012 Volokh Conspiracy articleabout a particular libel by implication lawsuit that sounds very similar to what you’re describing. Based on a 1978 Tennessee lawsuit cited therein.

ETA: But of course, as mentioned by beowulff, the public figure “actual malice” standard does raise the bar considerably.

I guess raising the question of what constitutes proof of “actual malice”? Having absolutely zero factual basis (i.e. no insinuation that the politician had ever accepted bribes, except in the reporter’s head?) Or a recording of the reporter saying “I’m going to nail that SOB”?

It’s certainly possible to defame someone through innuendo. (“Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”) The plaintiff suing in a defamation action will need to plead and prove to the satisfaction of the jury that the words published contained a defamatory innuendo. Assuming he succeeds in that, then the questions about whether actual malice is needed and is shown, whether the defendant has some other defence, etc, all come into play (exactly as they would if the words complained of were defamatory on their face).

It’s good to see that this article references Grice and conversational implicature (part of linguistic pragmatics) --because that is what we’re talking about here, fundamentally. Implicature is often what is happening when people talk about “innuendo.” It aptly demonstrates how language is much more than a simple string of utterances that either do or do not have true value.

I hate the crap where a politician is called out for being against veteran’s because they voted against a bill that gave veteran’s something but was bundled with something else like tax breaks to oil companies.

Politicians spend too much of their time fund raising and campaigning when they should be legislating and voting on issues, one at a time, not mixed bags of disparate items that when voted against cause the previously mentioned crap.

I don’t think the laws apply in that instance.

The New York Times did something rather similar.

‘The only reason he was found innocent is because it isn’t against the law’. Well, duh. And “many” of his actions being legal kind of carries the implication that other actions weren’t. No evidence of such was appended, nor even a mention of what those actions are.

Politicians are public figures. It is even more difficult to sustain a slander/libel suit against them than for the average person. Politics is a dirty business. So is journalism, especially when they combine.


You see in that URL that there’s a “/opinion/”? That’s a clue that this particular example is probably not going to be libel, due to it being what is technically called “opinion”. I don’t see how those sentences imply any illegal acts by Mr. DeLay; what they are saying is “Even if his actions are legal, they are reprehensible and should have been illegal.” Whether something is reprehensible and whether something should be illegal are not facts, and do not imply facts; they’re subjective opinions and so never libel.


Even statements of seeming fact aren’t libel if they are conclusions based on disclosed fact.

“Jones must be an adulterer. It’s obvious he is, because his wife is so damn ugly that he couldn’t possibly stay faithful.”

That asserts a fact, but immediately discloses what the “fact,” is based on.

And presumably the libel and slander lawsuits are just that, civil suits. Therefore the “preponderance of evidence” rule applies. I assume this means if there’s a reasonable indication of malice and the defendant can’t explain it away, that’s sufficient…?

I wonder if, in a political fight situation, excessive partisanship can be regarded as malice?

Trump is one example of someone who was notorious for using libel lawsuits. What stopped those from being thrown out for lack of malice indicators?

Remember that the case gnotiall cited was in a Tennessee state court and decided under Tennessee law. In fact, a court had already ruled the story wasn’t libelous, and this case was the appeal.

Every state has different laws for defamation/slander/libel, and it’s possible a court in a different state might have ruled the other way, even with the same set of facts. The case set a precedent to be sure, but the precedent only applies in state courts in Tennessee.

The problem with these law book cases is that they don’t usually give follow-up. Did the case go back to the lower court for retrial or did Nichols and the publisher settle? Did the publisher try to appeal the case to federal court on constitutional grounds?