One year ago, a woman you’d never heard of takes to Twitter for the first and only time to tell her three followers that her former lover is a sexual predator.
She takes to Twitter because the mainstream media — The New York Times and The New Yorker, the Miami Herald and the networks — won’t write her story, even though the man is rich.
The problem is clear in the correspondence she saved. She can’t back it up.
Three followers may not seem like enough to matter, but it does when the three are all prominent members of the news media, who have covered the #MeToo movement. Except none of those three will write the story either. That does not stop her.
With some smart help, she finds a tabloid reporter who will write about her Twitter claims, and the effect seems almost immediate. The former lover steps aside from professional and philanthropic positions, which is a nice way of saying he gets canceled, hundreds of stories later.
Except it’s not spontaneous combustion. This was arson of a sort that was much harder to do when the mainstream media ruled the roost.
Oh, it happened, I’m an expert in that: In 1988, the mainstream media fell for the rumor — later revealed as a Republican dirty trick — that the Democrat had been treated for mental illness, leading me to buy a new tie for the candidate’s doctor to wear on the Today show.
It also led to an avalanche of stories and an overnight drop in the polls. Mud sticks.
But in today’s hypothetical, which happens to be the situation facing my client, Leon Black, what is even more troubling is that the skepticism of the mainstream media wasn’t enough to stop the fire from beginning and spreading before the truth had a chance to come out, much less catch up.
Perhaps no one took this woman more seriously than the reporter for The New York Times. It’s not clear whether he knew that she had extorted her lover to the tune of $100,000 per month five years earlier, that she’d been collecting since, that she never suggested she’d been sexually assaulted even when she was extorting him, and that her own texts (“this is love”) made plain her lies.
The reporter repeatedly asked her for corroboration of any kind of her claims of sexual assault. He asked for contacts for other women who might make similar claims.
He found nothing and wrote nothing.
In the meantime, the flames erupt. There must be a law, and there is, there are multiple laws, state and federal, that not only prohibit defamation but also define mail and wire fraud so as to prohibit a campaign aimed at spreading lies that will damage the target financially as well as personally.
The racketeering laws incorporate these statutes and prohibit enterprises engaged in such schemes. Discovery in federal and state court requires parties and nonparties to produce relevant evidence, including their texts with reporters.
But all of this takes time, measured not in days or weeks (like our attention span) but in months and years (the stuff of memory).
“Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” Labor Secretary Ray Donovan famously asked, after being acquitted on corruption charges.
No such office exists, of course. You do the best you can. You bring your own lawsuit, give your own interviews, try to write your own story. There is always Twitter.
But we should all understand that verdicts reached overnight are often wrong, that judgment needs to be reserved and corrections should be offered generously, especially to those found guilty by accusation long before their chance to defend themselves.
— Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.