The Power of Allegations
By Martin Singer
Sex sells. Sex has been a media staple for ages, but now it seems as though people are buying all types of celebrity scandals and it doesn’t really matter who is selling them or whether they’re true. Lies about sex often sell more rapidly than the truth. In part due to the plethora of tabloid publications and websites and blogs, the American public has been bombarded with salacious, derogatory and often completely fictionalized stories about the most “celebrated” people in society. The entertainment-industry elite, star athletes and high-profile politicians have always provided tabloid fodder, but now we can watch the hunt in high definition.
The more sensational or salacious the story is about a celebrity, the greater the public interest in reading it, and the more revenue it generates for the media. Whether or not the story is accurate may not necessarily matter to the tabloid as long as the headline is juicy. If the tabloids are willing to pay, people are willing to sell. If an estranged relative wants to tell a story about how a celebrity refused to help them out, dozens of publications will publish the story, even if it was fabricated. The simple truth is that upbeat and positive stories about celebrities don’t sell as well as stories portraying them in a negative light.
Before a story is published in the print media, the representatives for the subjected celebrity are usually contacted by the journalist or publication and are then given only a few hours to respond. The media outlet may have researched it for weeks. As attorneys, we must rapidly marshal the facts, research the applicable law and provide a response via telephone or letter to attempt to prevent the defamatory story from being published.On occasion, our legal and factual argumentsmay result in a story being “killed” or changed. However, when a story breaks on the Internet, even this brief window to address the issues before a story is published is gone. Instead, it is the practice of Internet tabloid journalists and gossip bloggers to throw a story on the Web without any advance notice so the celebrity has no opportunity to respond before it’s too late.
There are countless gossip websites and bloggers who publish scandalous and derogatory stories about celebrities, often with nothing even resembling fact-checking before a story is posted. And after a story is published on one site, it usually gets picked up immediately by dozens of other sites in dozens of other countries. Thanks to this rapid domino effect, an attention-getting but unsubstantiated lie can make its way around the globe within minutes. Worse still, it’s often impossible to locate the individual who owns the website or who started the lie. (On one occasion, we managed to locate a website owner who resided in Costa Rica. He was identified as “Mr. Taco Bell.”) When the lie is anonymously posted to a blog, tracking down the source is even more difficult, especially since federal laws protect Internet service providers from liability for content they don’t control.
As a result of the rapid pace of technology, gossip print media is under increasing pressure to be the first to break a story. Within 24 hours of a salacious story being posted online, it’s likely to be repeated in the print media, giving the story more credibility and longevity.
Celebrities, like anyone else, have difficulty understanding why they can’t automatically win a libel case because a story about them was false. It seems like it should be that simple. After all, if the other driver in a car accident was at fault, you win. But if a magazine publishes a story that is wrong, it’s only the beginning of the analysis.
One of the reasons these fictionalized stories appear in the media with impunity is because the laws in America make it extremely difficult to prevail on a defamation claim. In most countries throughout the world, a party is exposed to liability if a story is false and harms a person’s reputation. In America, there is an extra hurdle: proving that the publisher knew the story was false or recklessly disregarded its accuracy. Typically, publications turn this hurdle into a roadblock by claiming they have a “reliable source.” The result is often that a bogus story is published by a blissfully ignorant media based on a “reliable” source’s lies.
Another reason defamatory stories are often published without resulting in litigation is because defamation lawsuits are extremely expensive to litigate. A lawsuit against the traditional media or established tabloids will likely cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, with only a remote possibility of recouping one’s legal fees even if the plaintiff wins.
Whether defamatory allegations appear on the Internet or in print media, they have a significant effect on the celebrity, his or her family, their fans and the general public. Not only can defamatory statements affect how the public perceives this famous person, they can even impact the potential for future jobs (which might explain why public figures are willing to sue to clear their names). Even though it becomes a legal issue whenever First Amendment rights are put to the test, society’s insatiable appetite for celebrity, sex and scandal make published gossip an increasingly moral issue as well. Lies sell because the public keeps on buying.
illustration by Jon Han