by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
About halfway down page 5 in this morning’s News & Observer, we learn that the newspaper has settled a decade-old libel dispute. The settlement arrives after the N.C. Supreme Court guaranteed that the newspaper would have to pay a libeled state government worker at least $1.5 million.
A unanimous high court ruled last August that the N&O had libeled State Bureau of Investigation firearms analyst Beth Desmond in a 2010 newspaper series called “Agents’ Secrets.” The court’s decision upheld a damage award of at least $1.5 million.
But a trial court originally had awarded Desmond another $4.5 million in punitive damages. That figure, capped by state law, fell well below the $7.5 million in punitive damages awarded by the jury in the case. The Supreme Court agreed that an error during the original trial necessitated throwing out the punitive damage award. Justices ordered a new trial to deal only with the issue of punitive damages.
Today’s N&O report says both sides were preparing for the new trial when they decided to settle the case through mediation. Terms of the settlement are undisclosed. The case is now over.
The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision followed an earlier unanimous opinion from the N.C. Court of Appeals against the newspaper. Writing about the issue in January 2019, I noted:
Journalists aren’t the only ones who should learn a lesson from the Raleigh News & Observer’s recent loss in a multimillion-dollar libel case.
The case offers a warning to other reporters, producers, pundits, activists, and advocates: Be careful not to let your favorite “narrative” blind you as you pursue the truth. …
… [Reporter Mandy] Locke made no mistake when she started looking into alleged misdeeds at the SBI. She made no mistake when she listened to a defense attorney’s concerns about one SBI analyst. She didn’t even make a mistake if she, as the court suggests, adopted that attorney’s accusations as her own theory. That theory helped drive research for her article.
But Locke ran into trouble when conversations with multiple experts failed to back up her theory. She could have adjusted the story — or dropped it — in response to new information. Instead documents linked to the lawsuit suggest Locke twisted the experts’ words to fit her preconceived theory. Evidence “tended to show that the primary objective of defendants was sensationalism rather than truth,” according to the Appeals Court.
Pundits and activists should strive to avoid that type of error. Even if there’s no multimillion-dollar court judgment on the line.