What? Only Half the Story?
WorldNetDaily's happy that a libel judgment against a friend is overturned, but hides from its readers the fact that the guy isn't exactly innocent.
By Terry Krepel
Happiness is an overturned court judgment.
For its lead story July 11, WorldNetDaily trumpeted the reversal of a $598,750 libel judgment against anti-Clinton filmmaker Patrick Matrisciana, who had been sued by two sheriff's deputies mentioned in a Matrisciana video.
The deputies, Jay Campbell and Kirk Lane, were listed in the video among six law enforcement officers "implicated" by alleged eyewitnesses in the deaths and alleged cover-up of two Arkansas teen-agers, referred to (by conspiracy-minded folks like Matrisciana, at least) as the "boys on the tracks" case. The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis overruled a judgment by a U.S. District Court judge that the deputies were not public figures and that they had proven that Matrisciana had serious doubts about a statement connecting the pair to the boys' deaths. The appeals court ruling that the deputies were public figures means that they would have to meet a higher, more stringent standard to prove libel.
WorldNetDaily is happy about this for a couple of reasons. One, Matrisciana's video, "Obstruction of Justice: The Mena Connection," is readily available in the WND online store, so they'll be sure to make a few bucks off the story. Two, WND is facing its own defamation lawsuit regarding a series of articles about Tennessee politics which WorldNetDaily CEO Joseph Farah declares has "some striking parallels" to the Matrisciana lawsuit. WND has set up a legal defense fund to fight the suit.
A close reading of the story, though, reveals a couple of problems. First, thought the story carries a WND copyright notice, it is in large part taken from an Associated Press story that moved the same day. AP is not credited anywhere in the WND story. Second, the long quote from Farah is lifted from an Aug. 11, 1999, column he wrote after the original verdict was issued. Farah served as an "expert witness" in the trial.
Third, WND deletes all statements the appeals court made that were critical of Matrisciana that were in the AP story it cribbed.
The court wrote that it "was not saying he was ethical or fair" in the video, according to the AP story, which moved in two versions, one for Arkansas media and a shorter version that moved on the national wire. (The Arkansas version of the story is the one being referred to here.)
"The record in this case reads like a John Grisham novel," the court wrote. "However, unlike 'The Pelican Brief' or 'The Firm,' here the lines of fact and fiction are blurred."
The video also floated the theory that former President Clinton was somehow responsible (the default assumption among the right-wing conspiracy crowd seems to be that some Clinton had a hand in pretty much everything bad that happened in Arkansas since the mid-1970s). The two teen boys were found dead near Mena, Ark., after being hit by a train while laying on the tracks. The video speculates that illegal drugs were routinely flown into the Mena airport, and that the boys were killed after they saw a plane drop a cargo of illegal drugs, their bodies then placed on the tracks. Clinton, then Arkansas governor, is alleged to have know about the alleged drug trafficking but did nothing to combat it.
The appeals court writes that Clinton "... as near as we can tell, was tossed into the video that is the subject of this appeal just for flavor," according to the AP article, which seems to be another way of saying that Matrisciana offers no actual proof of Clinton's alleged involvement.
A July 11 article in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette offers even more detail on Matrisciana's video. It quotes U.S. Circuit Judge C. Arlen Beam as saying that "it would have been prudent of Matrisciana to inser the term 'alleged' before, or 'of dubious character' after the word 'eyewitnesses.'" But the concept of "reckless disregard for the truth" under which the deputies had to prove Matrisciana acted "is not measured by what a prudent person would have investigated or published." Beam goes on to say that the term "implicated" is not defined, making it unclear exactly what the two deputies were implicated in.
Matrisciana does not include a response from deputies in his video, but the court noted that mere failure to investigate thoroughly doesn't prove malice under the public-figure standard, according to the Democrat-Gazette. Nor does merely "presenting evidence of a defendant's ill will, desire to injure, or political or profit motive."
Both the AP and WND articles point out that Matrisciana's defense was his right to freedom of expression -- not the truth. Why? Matrisciana doesn't know the truth. The deputies were named in his video because someone implicated them, which was good enough for inclusion. The deputies were indeed implicated, but Matrisciana apparently doesn't bother to investigate further, i.e. check the credibility of the eyewitness or talk to the deputies for their side of the story.
That's a shoddy way to run a so-called documentary. But Farah approves. In an Aug. 4, 1999, column, he calls Matrisciana a "good man" and adds: "By every standard of professional documentary journalism, Matrisciana performed admirably in his pursuit of truth."
The lesson here? Just because you have facts doesn't necessarily mean you have truth. Just as Matrisciana was not interested in pursuing all the facts by examining the credibility of alleged witnesses or getting comments from those "implicated" in the "boys on the tracks" case, Farah and WND chose not to tell its readers the whole truth about Matrisciana. It's not libelous, but it certainly isn't the mark of a diligent journalist.
Update: A July 22 WND story on the case notes that "the judicial panel did caution the filmmaker," pulling from the court decision a quote saying: "To say that Matrisciana did not cross the line into public-figure libel is not to say he stayed within the bounds of ethics and fairness." The article, written by Julie Foster, offers no elaboration on this, however, and somehow we suspect that the judges' caveat won't stop WND from selling the video. The main purpose of the article is to puff up Matrisciana, noting that he's now working for Tim LaHaye, "famed co-author of the apocalyptic 'Left Behind' series," and listing his next target now that he doesn't have the Clintons to kick around anymore: Harry Potter.