Jay Seaton, publisher of the Grand Junction, Colorado Daily Sentinel, is angry. He's angry because State Senator Ray Scott derided a story in the Sentinel as "fake news."
The origin of the spat is a Daily Sentinel column urging Scott to move a public records bill forward and suggesting that he was holding it up. Scott responded with a tweet saying ""We have our own fake news in Grand Junction," linking to a longer statement:
The very liberal GJ Sentinel is attempting to apply pressure for me to move a bill. They have no facts, as usual, and tried to call me out on SB 40 know as the CORA bill. They haven't contacted me to get any information on why the bill has been delayed but choose to run a fake news story demanding I run the bill. You may have a barrel of ink but it just splashed in your face. @foolstask@fakenews
Rather than take this for the empty non-specific bluster that it is, Jay Seaton freaked out:
True, this term has become part of the national vernacular as some kind of general pejorative, but I take this allegation from Sen. Scott very seriously. It attacks the very reason for our existence.
. . . .
It is important for newspapers to have thick skins, to absorb criticism when it comes our way and not respond to every slight, real or perceived. That said, there is a difference between criticism of a news story, editorial stance or perceived bias and what Sen. Scott has done. His tweet is patently, provably false.
Worse, he made his false statement knowingly for the purpose of diminishing the only real asset this newspaper has: its credibility.
Imagine the backlash if this newspaper publicly assailed someone based on no facts and invented things out of thin air for the purposes of impugning their character. We could be sued — and we’d deserve it.
I don’t think I can sit back and take this kind of attack from an elected official. We are brokers in facts. Words have real meaning in this business. Sen. Scott has defamed this company and me as its leader.
To borrow a phrase from another famous Twitter user, I’ll see you in court.
Naturally, the ludicrous spectacle of nominal journalists threatening to sue politicians over criticism drew national attention, much of it simply awful and misleading on the relevant law:
If filed, legal experts said it would be the first suit of its kind, potentially setting a legal definition for what is considered fake news and what is not.
DAMMIT NPR THAT'S NOT HOW THIS WORKS. THAT'S NOT HOW ANY OF THIS WORKS.
Only provably false statements of fact can be defamatory. "Fake news" is not a provably false statement of fact — as Jay Seaton admits in the very column in which he threatens to sue over it, it's a general pejorative. Moreover, whether a statement is factual is always analyzed in the statement's full context. Here, the full statement of Sen. Scott's tweet made it clear he was deriding the story for speculating about his reasons for delaying the bill without full information, not claiming that the Daily Sentinel was fabricating a fact. In other words, the context made it even clearer that the term "fake news" was being used to offer an opinion about the paper's speculation and bias, not to accuse it of falsifying a specific fact. Senator Scott's insult-laden opinion was about politics, at the very core of First Amendment protection. And of course Senator Scott was trying to diminish the paper's credibility. That's how political arguments work. But that doesn't transform protected rhetoric into a provably false statement of fact.
Jay Seaton and the Daily Sentinel are being irresponsible and reckless. Journalists should not encourage misunderstandings of core First Amendment concepts, and absolutely should not be encouraging Americans to think that they can sue over political insults and opinions. And Seaton, perhaps enjoying the spotlight, keeps keeps doubling down:
"I'm accustomed to all kinds of criticism for what we do; that comes with the job," he said. But Seaton says the term "fake news" is "an attempt to undermine the speaker. That's where this bumps up against the First Amendment. When you've got a government actor who doesn't like something he's seen and tries to diminish its credibility, then you've got real problems."
No, no, no. You may have political problems, but you do not have First Amendment problems. Criticism — even unfair criticism — is not censorship. It is not any sort of First Amendment violation.
Stop making things worse.
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