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yesh omrim

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The libel of a thousand scratches

3 June 2004
And this is what the people of the age of the Flood used to do: When a man brought out a basket full of lupines, one would come and seize less than a perutah’s worth and then everyone would come and seize less than a perutah’s worth, so that he had no redress at law.

(Genesis Rabbah 31:5, translated and cited here)

I was reminded of this midrash when I read Alexandra Polier’s account of how the John Kerry sex-scandal-that-wasn’t, in which she was rumored to have had an affair with the senator, changed her life. In the article, she demonstrates her journalistic skills by following the rumors back to their source:

  1. Polier expressed interest in working for Kerry’s campaign, got free tickets to one of his fund-raisers, and had dinner with the senator and several of his advisors. She dated Kerry’s finance director for a few months.
  2. A close friend of Polier’s, observing how quickly Kerry returned one of Polier’s phone calls, “got excited and told friends about it.” One of those friends, apparently, was Bill Jarrell, a Republican lobbyist. Either the friend or Jarrell interpreted this behavior as evidence that something skanky was going on. (You see, in the rarefied world of Republican policy wonks—and apparently, some Democratic wonks as well—no senator would ever talk to a twenty-something woman with an interest in politics for any reason other than, you know, wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more.)
  3. Chris Lehane, a Democratic dirty-tricks specialist who left the Kerry campaign to work for Wesley Clark, may have also been shopping the rumor around.
  4. Stephen VanDyke, a 25-year-old computer programmer in Atlanta, posted the rumor to WatchBlog on February 6.
  5. The Drudge Report picked up the rumor (not necessarily from WatchBlog) on Febraury 12. Drudge did not mention Polier by name, but other reporters knew who he was talking about.
  6. The next day, The Sun, a British tabloid, ran an article by Brian Flynn who named Polier and, according to Polier, fabricated quotations from her parents. (When Polier tried to interview Flynn, he referred all of her questions to The Sun’s PR office, and the tabloid’s PR manager refused to comment.)
  7. Drudge linked to The Sun’s story, seeing it as confirmation, and more respectable media outlets (the Times of London, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal Web site) picked it up from there.

In a world where libel attorneys work for free, Polier would have a slam-dunk case against every person mentioned in this list. In most contexts, a journalist who quotes a libelous statement, even if the quotation is accurate, is committing another libel. But every link in this chain of rumor-mongering could say, “Well, by the time I published the rumor, lots and lots of people knew about it from other sources, and other journalists spread the rumor to an even wider audience after they picked it up from me, so even if we are all liable for damaging Polier by spreading this falsehood, my share of the liability should not be very great.” Furthermore, I suspect that if Polier has any ambition left for a career in journalism, she knows that being a plaintiff in a libel suit would hurt her employability even more than being the involuntary star of a sex scandal. Even if she doesn’t care about that, how much can she expect to gain from winning a lawsuit, compared to the time and money it would cost her to prosecute it?

And so the merchant sees her property leak away, penny by penny, until there is nothing left and nobody worth suing, and our generation is one step closer to the generation of Noah’s flood.

see also Camworld, Mark A. R. Kleiman, Pandagon