While the blogosphere has been tittering about whether State Sen. Kevin Coughlin dallied with a staffer, some of us have been wondering why an alleged libel suit threat could possibly have spiked the story.
If you are late to the story, Scene Magazine reporter James Renner was fired last week for his reaction to news that his editor and publisher were burying a story alleging that Coughlin was having an affair with an identified former staffer. Renner sent the story to Tim Russo who published it. Professor Idontlink at Pol. Sci. 216 has also picked up the story and followed up with more detail from Renner
According to Renner's story posted on BI, Scene decided to kill the story after getting letters from Sen. Coughlin's attorney threatening a libel suit if the story went to press. The posted story also details Renner's reporting which includes interviewing multiple and an entertaining attempt to secure comment from Coughin's alleged paramour.
Based on the facts as presented by Renner, Scene's action is inexplicable. Coughlin is a public figure. As such any libel action he brings would have to meet the high constitutional standard set by the Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan. The Court held that:
- The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made  with "actual malice"--that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.
And the Sullivan standard assumes that allegations in a story are false and therefore defamatory. If the allegations are true, Scene also wins. The Sullivan actual malice requirement offers news organizations a way to avoid the long, expensive business of proving truth. Which in a way is a pity as (from what I've heard) the defense would be able to put together a long and impressive witness list.
Scene management knows (or at least should know) all of the above. Their abject surrender to Coughlin is puzzling.