WorldNetDaily: Officially Discredited
WND has admitted that it published false claims about a businessman who supported Al Gore in order to settle a libel lawsuit. Will its history of recklessly putting its political agenda before sound journalism -- which the libel settlement hasn't stopped -- eventually kill Joseph Farah's baby?
By Terry Krepel
WorldNetDaily has long used a $165 million libel and defamation lawsuit filed against it by Clark Jones, Tennessee car dealer and fund-raiser for former Vice President Al Gore, for self-aggrandizement purposes.
A September 2000 article by Charles C. Thompson II and Tony Hays -- part of a several-part series published by WND attacking Gore prior to the 2000 presidential election -- described Jones as a "suspected drug dealer," described as such on state law enforcement computerized files," who had interfered with a criminal investigation. Thompson and Hays also suggested that Jones played a role in the arson of one of his auto dealerships.
WND regularly bashed Jones as a "Gore crony" and depicted itself as a defender of the truth and the freedom of the press. Thompson insisted, "We did a proper, ethical investigation. ... And the spurious claims of Clark Jones can't and won't win." WND editor Joseph Farah has insisted (without citing any evidence to back it up): "Understand that this lawsuit would be dropped in a flat second if Al Gore wanted it to be dropped," going on to claim, "WorldNetDaily has made every effort to ensure that its reporting in this series -- and in everything it has covered -- was fair, honest, truthful, balanced and accurate." WND has regularly boasted the articles caused Gore to lose Tennessee in the 2000 presidential election and, thus, the presidency, since a Tennessee win would have sealed an Electoral College victory and made the post-election turmoil in Florida moot.
As recently as Feb. 5, a WND article by Bob Unruh portrayed the lawsuit as a harbinger for "the future of investigative journalism in the United States," quoting WND's lawyer in the case, Larry Parrish, as saying, "If what WorldNetDaily did is subject to being the basis for a libel judgment, investigative reporting will just come to a complete halt." It also quoted Farah as complaining that "the largest defamation case in the history of the United States has not been reported anywhere outside of the news agency involved."
Farah probably doesn't want to complain about that anymore.
Eight days after this article appeared, a Feb. 13 article stated that WND has settled the lawsuit, which had been scheduled to go to trial next month, out of court -- in part by retracting the statements it made about Jones.
The terms of the settlement are confidential, according to the article, though it would be logical to assume that WND paid some amount of money to Jones for the grief it caused him. It also provided "the text of the settlement statement jointly drafted by all parties in the lawsuit. Both sides agreed to limit comment on the lawsuit to this statement":
"A lawsuit for libel, defamation, false light and conspiracy was filed by Clark Jones of Savannah, Tennessee against WorldNetDaily.com, Tony Hays and Charles H. Thompson II arising out of a press release issued by WorldNetDaily.com on September 18, 2000, and articles dated September 20, October 8, November 24 and December 5, 2000, written by Tony Hays and Charles H. Thompson, II, posted on WorldNetDaily.com's website.
(This statement has been appended to the original 2000 article, as well as Unruh's Feb. 5 article, which repeated the original article's accusations against Jones without bothering to note that Jones had denied them, and other articles repeating the claim.)
The note that "all parties in the lawsuit" signed off on the agreement presumably also covers the other defendants in the case: Thompson, Hays, the Center for Public Integrity (which underwrote Thompson and Hays' reporting), then-WND director of communications (and now vice president for communications and marketing at the conservative Heritage Foundation) Rebecca Hagelin, and various Tennessee-based news outlets.
WND's admission that "no witness verifies the truth of what the witnesses are reported by authors to have stated" and that "the sources named in the publications have stated under oath that statements attributed to them in the articles were either not made by them, were misquoted by the authors, were misconstrued, or the statements were taken out of context" is a huge mea culpa. And it begs the question: Shouldn't the time to have figured this out have been before the article was published, instead of waiting until seven years after the fact to verify the claims?
The statement also appears to comport with claims by expert witnesses for Jones, who stated that the articles "grossly violated the basic standards of care advocated by professional journalism organizations and practice in reputable newsrooms" and that they included "publication of statements about wrongdoings attributed to Clark Jones which were attached to unnamed sources and allowed free floating use of the weasel word 'alleged' with no evidence presented that any official charges or allegations had been brought against Mr. Jones."
So much for Farah's claim that "WorldNetDaily has made every effort to ensure that its reporting in this series ... was fair, honest, truthful, balanced and accurate."
One more thing has not been discussed by WND: the unavoidable conclusion that the rest of Thompson and Hays' reporting may very well be similarly "misquoted," "misconstrued, or "taken out of context."
Since WND has often boasted that the series, in Unruh's words in the Feb. 5 article, "was responsible for Gore losing the state -- and thus the presidential election," should it not also apologize to Gore as well for disseminating lies that cost him the election?
After all, there is a definite likelihood that the rest of Thompson and Hays' series is a factually shaky as their claims about Jones -- which, among other things, peddled guilt-by-association ties between Gore and the Russian mafia as well as claiming he protected "corrupt officials" in Tennessee.
Will WND go back and fact-check the rest of Thompson and Hays' reporting as well, or will it wait for someone else to sue before being spurred into action? The former would be the prudent solution, at least if WND has any proactive interest in rebuilding public confidence in its reporting.
Will WND take action against Thompson and Hays to recover damages for their faulty reporting? It certainly as a case to do so; if it wanted to publicly demonstrate a commitment to good journalism, it could easily make a big show of doing so, decrying the reporters for besmirching WND's good name (such as it is).
The problem is, however, that the Jones lawsuit is just one manifestation of WND's abysmal reporting standards:
These are all significant breaches of sound journalistic practice, as well as blows to whatever credibility WND has -- but Farah has never publicly addressed them with his readers, explaining how they occurred, how (or if) those responsible were punished, or what measures WND has taken to ensure they don't happen again.
So what does this all mean? Mainly, that Joseph Farah is much more interested in promoting a right-wing, anti-liberal agenda than responsible journalism. In the case of the Thompson-Hays articles, he clearly allowed his hatred of the Clinton administration to trump the time-honored concept of journalistic diligence.
That's one thing that can be said for much of WND's reporting -- it really doesn't care if what it reports is actually true, as long as its political enemies are appropriately smeared.
(In court papers in the Jones lawsuit, WND made the laughable claim that "WND expressed no corporate editorial opinion with respect to whether Albert Gore, Jr. or George W. Bush was the more suitable candidate to hold the office of President" in 2000, even though Farah -- who, as WND's founder and editor, is arguably WND's "corporate editorial opinion" -- had asserted before the 2000 election that "There are at least a thousand good reasons not to vote for Al Gore for president," stated that Gore is "unfit for the presidency" and that "he will turn the presidency into a kind of neo-paganistic ayatollah-like system of oppression from which this country will never recover.")
As if to demonstrate that it hasn't learned anything from having to pay a no-doubt-significant sum to settle a libel lawsuit and after admitting that it published falsehoods -- and following its tradition of running unverified claims against Democratic presidential candidates -- WND gets back behind the smear machine with a Feb. 17 article (unbylined this time) unquestioningly repeating a claim by a man named Larry Sinclair who said he did drugs and had sex with Barack Obama. WND made no apparent effort in that article or another one the next day to verify anything the man said -- indeed, WND offers no independently corroborated evidence whatsoever to support the man's claim -- what including his claim to live in Duluth, Minnesota, or his claim that he is "a registered Democrat but has never voted for any candidate."
Regarding those last two claims: One blogger is reporting that the man is, in fact, from Texas and a supporter of Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.
WND appears to be making the same mistake it made in publishing Thompson and hays' work: Shouldn't WND have made an effort to verify Sinclair's claims before it published them? You know, how real journalists do it? Or does WND believe that the mere fact that someone is spouting smears against a Democrat is evidence of its truth?
It's looking like WorldNetDaily is supplying yet another aggrieved party with material for another libel lawsuit -- and that WND is giving readers yet another reason not to take it seriously as a source of news.
Farah's willingness to use WorldNetDaily to recklessly spread falsehoods about his political enemies may -- and perhaps should -- eventually kill his website. WND's crushing admission in the Jones lawsuit that it spread lies after years of boasting it did nothing wrong, plus its eagerness to spread unproven claims about Obama, are signs that Farah cares nothing about the consequences of his actions, only about using his website as a vendetta machine.