Self-inflicted wounds from the culture wars

There is little that Texas state legislators like doing more than passing a bill to help people who own and run businesses in Texas.  They will pass such laws even if the result hurts Texas citizens, as it publicly reinforces the perception that Texas leaders are “reactionaries uncomfortable with delivering an equitable society.”  Case in point, as elaborated by Chris Tomlinson in today’s Houston Chronicle: the current effort to outlaw diversity, equity and inclusion programs which Republican leaders claim discriminate against white people, even though those leaders are likely to “drive away private investments in higher education and disqualify the state for federal programs worth billions” if they succeed.  (Not online yet, will post the link when available)

Last week the GOP majority of the Texas Senate approved a bill to prohibit all Texas public colleges and universities from even having DEI programs or staff.  (Democrats were unanimous in opposition, for what that’s worth here in Texas).  The bill must still pass the State House before it could be signed by the governor, but the governor is already on board.

[Governor Greg] Abbott has argued DEI programs sound good on the surface but that they have been manipulated to pass on potential job applicants because of their race. He sent warnings to colleges and universities in February, which was followed by schools like the University of Texas, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston all announcing that they would step back from DEI programs or review how their programs work.

Despite that response by the big state schools, State Senator Brandon Creighton and his Senate colleagues have taken action.  Why?  Well, Creighton has said “while he is all for diversity, DEI programs have gone too farratio3x2_1200, and are actually excluding some job candidates and ultimately not succeeding in increasing the diversity of college faculty.”  So, his plan for achieving more diversity is to kill the programs that are designed to achieve more diversity.  Not to improve the programs so that they work better and achieve the result he claims he wants, but to drive a stake through their hearts so they can never rise from the grave.  Cue the law of unintended consequences.

When it comes to correcting generations of discrimination, inequity and exclusion, though, Texas Republicans think historical injustices will fix themselves.  Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick are pushing Senate Bill 17 and other bills to make programs intended to correct past wrongs illegal.

They don’t care that a ban on diversity, equity and inclusion, known as DEI, will drive away private investments in higher education and disqualify the state for federal programs worth billions.

When companies pay the fee to join the University of Texas at Austin’s Energy Institute, DEI programs for students and faculty are among their top concerns, institute director Brian Korgel told me.  Federal and private grant applications always have DEI sections.

“Companies expect us as universities to play a role in terms of fostering the diversity of the student body, both in admissions and in terms of graduation and retention,” he said.  “For a single investigator applying for a science grant from the National Science Foundation, you really need to address diversity in some way in your proposal; otherwise, it becomes a real challenge to get the work funded.”

The Energy Institute has joined the Center for Houston’s Future, Exxon, Sempra and other companies to apply for a Department of Energy grant to build a hydrogen hub along the Gulf Coast.  But the application asks about DEI efforts.  The Legislature’s anti-DEI laws imperil that application.

In tandem with their valiant fight against DEI programs, Republicans in Austin have opened a second front against those who would defend DEI: academics, like Jeremi Suri of The University of Texas, who Tomlinson quotes arguing the similarities between the political leaders of today and those of post-Civil War America who fought to protect white privilege.

But Suri can reach such conclusions without fear of retribution thanks to the principle of academic freedom and tenure.

Abbott, Patrick, Creighton and their GOP allies intend to end those, too.

Professors who violate SB 17 can be placed on unpaid leave and fired, while universities will lose state funding and face $1 million fines.  Creighton’s Senate Bill 18 would end tenure, and Senate Bill 16 would make it illegal for Suri to teach the ideas in his book.

University deans already complain that the Legislature’s anti-intellectualism makes recruiting the world’s top minds to Texas difficult.  But ending tenure and fining professors for breaking with white supremacist orthodoxy will make it nearly impossible.

The best minds want to work at the best universities.  The best companies want to recruit from the best universities.  If the best professors take their research and go, corporations will follow them.

Culture wars may make good politics for the right, but they will also have consequences for the state’s economy.

So: you can’t have programs designed to try to overcome white privilege and promote greater diversity, can’t even teach about it, but you can be fired in contravention of the principles of academic freedom and tenure if you do.  Give Texas Republican leaders credit: they can be thorough when it comes to attacking the outward manifestations of their own inner demons.

Actual malice, meet demonstrable truth

…not long after Joe Biden had been officially declared the winner of [the 2020 presidential] election, a bunch of disreputable right-wing sore losers—that’s the technical term—began to claim that the Dominion machines had somehow been tampered with, and that votes that had been duly cast for Donald Trump via Dominion machines had been secretly switched over to Biden’s column.

The fact that this thesis was very stupid did not stop it from gaining credence among many Trump voters. These people weren’t just angry that their candidate had lost the election; they were angry that Fox News wasn’t reporting that Trump had actually won the election. In retaliation, many of these Trump fans began to unofficially boycott Fox News, instead tuning in to other right-wing news networks, such as Newsmax, which were much more willing to indulge their conspiratorial fantasies.

Check out more of this nice, fun summary of Dominion Voting systems libel suit against Fox News here.  The libel suit is scheduled to go before a jury in a Delaware court tomorrow, assuming the two sides don’t reach a settlement between now and then.

As a recovering journalist myself, I’ll say it is my belief that it should be hard to get a libel verdict against a journalist, a newspaper or broadcast company.  The U.S. Constitution envisions a free press that facilitates a lively public debate of issues, and in the decision that set today’s judicial standard on libel law, New York Times v. Sullivan, Justice William Brennan wrote for a unanimous court that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide‐open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.”  The threat of litigation is often used to by people who come out on the bad end of those debates to try to scare a paper or a station into not running tough stories (see: Trump, Donald J.; litigation; threats of).

But that doesn’t mean that those who publish on paper, who broadcast through the air, or who post online, should have a free hand to say anything they want at any time with impunity; those who have truly been libeled do have recourse.  But keep in mind, reputable publications can make a strong defense by proving the truth of what they published: if a published statement is true, it is not libelous or slanderous. (It was not ever thus: courts no longer automatically consider statements that damage the reputation as obviously libelous.)  If what was published is factually true, it is not libelous and you cannot win a lawsuit alleging libel.

In a case where the plaintiff is a public figure or a public official, Times v. Sullivan set a high bar for proving you were libeled by a publication: you must prove that the defendant published a story “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”  (A term you’ll often hear that is used to describe that state is to say the publication acted with “actual malice.”)  While publication of an erroneous story is bad and hurts the reputation of the publication, it is not a case of libel against a public figure or institution (which Dominion is) if the publication believed the story was true and had done the required work to gather the facts to come to believe it was true.

In Dominion Voting Systems v. Fox, the voting machine company claims Fox defamed the company by “spreading false claims that the company rigged the 2020 presidential election to prevent former President Donald Trump’s reelection.”

As noted in a New York Times story last week,

While legal experts have said Dominion’s case is unusually strong, defamation suits are extremely difficult to win because the law essentially requires proof of the defendants’ state of mind. Dominion’s burden will be to convince a jury that people inside Fox acted with actual malice, meaning either that they knew the allegations they broadcast were false but did so anyway, or that they acted so recklessly they overlooked facts that would have proved them wrong.

During standard pre-trial discovery in this case, Dominion uncovered information from inside Fox that Fox News Channel and its on-air talent and some of its management leaders knew that the claims against Dominion were not true (“with knowledge that it was false”) but published the stories anyway—over and over again—to keep from offending their viewers who believed the claims from Trump and his lawyers and other sycophants of a rigged election (“with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”).

As it often does, Fox defends itself by wearing the mantle of mainstream responsible journalism operating in the public interest; it argues it reported the claims made by Trump and others because they were newsworthy.

Fox has argued that while it understood many of the claims made by its guests about Dominion were false, they were still worth covering as inherently newsworthy. Fox’s lawyers have taken the position that there is nothing more newsworthy than claims by a former president of the United States that an election wasn’t credible.

But Judge [Eric] Davis disagreed.

“Just because someone is newsworthy doesn’t mean you can defame someone,” he said, referring to pro-Trump lawyers like Sidney Powell and Rudolph W. Giuliani, who appeared repeatedly on Fox News and Fox Business in the weeks after the 2020 election and linked Dominion to various conspiracy theories.

The judge admonished Fox’s lawyers, saying they cannot make the argument that the false statements about Dominion came from guests like Ms. Powell and not from Fox hosts. That argument is irrelevant, he said, because the fact remains that Fox is responsible as the broadcaster.

“It’s a publication issue, not a who-said-it issue,” he said.

There’s no guarantee to the outcome of a jury trial, of course…but if I may presume to summarize a closing argument for Dominion:

  • Fox lied about Dominion rigging its election machines to steal the 2020 presidential election from Crybaby He-Man
  • Dominion made every effort to inform Fox that what its guests and its hosts were saying on the air was incorrect
  • Fox knew that the accusations against Dominion that were being made on its programs were lies, but permitted them to continue
  • Dominion suffered monetary losses and losses to its reputation as a result of Fox’s broadcasts, and asks for money damages

Nice and neat, and not confusing.

Fox has been lying on the air to its audience for years, telling them (1) what they want to hear, regardless of whether it is true, and (2) what certain politicians have agreed to parrot, to build political consensus and power.  But this time, it lied about a company that was willing to call them out in a court of law, and the case has landed before a judge who has demonstrated his loyalty to demonstrable truth and facts.  For Fox, that is a whole new kind of audience.