Two federal courts recently dismissed defamation claims brought against the New York Times and the Kansas City Star, finding the subject articles employed standard investigative journalism techniques that immunized the newspapers from liability under state defamation laws.
In Croce v. New York Times Co., No. 18-4158 (6th Cir. July 17, 2019), the 6th Circuit upheld the dismissal of an Ohio State University cancer researcher’s defamation claim, finding that a “reasonable reader” would interpret the article as presenting both sides of the controversy. The suit arose after the Times published an article examining Dr. Carlo Croce’s cancer research in the context of a broader piece about the inherent conflicts present when large research institutions reap millions of dollars in grant money for “star” researchers, and then are put in the position of investigating those researchers’ methods.
Dr. Croce argued that the article’s headline – “Years of Ethics Charges, but Star Cancer Researcher Gets a Pass” – was defamatory, as it implied that he did not get the punishment he deserved for his alleged scientific misconduct. The court rejected this theory, as the headline could be subject to an alternative interpretation: that Ohio State was culpable for not sufficiently investigating Dr. Croce’s alleged errors. Ultimately, the 6th Circuit decided against using the article’s headline as the sole ground for its ruling, based on settled law that an allegedly defamatory headline cannot be considered in isolation and must be construed together with the entire publication.
In full context, the 6th Circuit found that a reasonable reader could construe the article as a standard piece of investigative journalism that took care to present both sides of the story. The Times employed qualifying language when examining the alleged errors in Dr. Croce’s research that stopped short of saying Dr. Croce committed wrongdoing. Instead of saying Dr. Croce committed research errors, the Times article couched the accusations against Dr. Croce in such terms as “some scientists argue,” “allegations,” and “claims of.” Moreover, the article did not cast Dr. Croce in an entirely unfavorable light. The article explained that the doctor was never found to have committed misconduct and that he denied any wrongdoing, and quoted a Nobel Prize-winning biologist as saying that Dr. Croce made important contributions to identifying the molecular causes of cancer.
Echoing Croce, the court in Chastain v. Cypress Media, LLC, No. 4:19-CV-00315 (W.D. MO. July, 22, 2019), found that the Kansas City Star did not make defamatory statements about a mayoral candidate in a profile piece that contained substantially true representations. For example, the article’s statement that the candidate was put on a watch list at City Hall in response to perceived threats against the mayor was “essentially true” and therefore not defamatory. While the city may have wrongly perceived the candidate as being dangerous and placed him on the watch list unjustly, this did not change in the court’s view the truth of the matter – the candidate was actually placed on the watch list.
The candidate in Chastain also failed to plead “actual malice” for any of the alleged defamatory statements, as required for defamation claims against a public figure. The court found that even assuming for the sake of argument that the perceived defamatory statements were false, the candidate failed to plead that the Star had actual knowledge of the falsity of the article’s statements or that the Star acted with “reckless disregard” for the truth. The court reasoned that a perceived failure to investigate before publishing and the newspaper’s possible ill will toward the political candidate do not by themselves evidence a conscious disregard for the truth sufficient to support a claim of actual malice.