Sofia Song was doing what financial analysts often do. She’d been consulted by Bloomberg News for a December 2010 story titled “Trump Evokes Doubts of Fading Brand With Golf Courses” under the bylines of John Gittelsohn and Nadja Brandt. At the time, Song was vice president of research at StreetEasy.com, a company that compiles exhaustive real estate listings. In her analytical travels, Song had found that Trump properties perform like a lot of other properties. “There’s no obvious premium for the Trump name,” she told Bloomberg News.
Time for a Trump threat letter.
Days after her comments were published, Song got this:
Substantial damages from a quote or two in Bloomberg News! This Sofia Song is one powerful real-estate analyst.
So just what irked Trump? To what diabolical, anti-Trump story did Song lend her analysis? Oh, just a meticulously balanced take on Trump’s businesses, featuring numerous voices both criticizing and supporting him. On the positive side, Daniel Lebensohn of BH III LLC said: “The Trump brand is powerful for a luxury product. It’s internationally known.” On the negative side, various experts chimed in with unfavorable assessments of the mogul’s far-flung empire. For example: Larry Miller, chief executive of Southern California chain Sit ‘n Sleep, said that he’d bailed on the Trump Home mattress line. “Trump was just not highly successful here,” Miller told Bloomberg News. And we all know who had the loudest voice in the story. “The name is hotter than ever. It’s been hot as a pistol.” (That was Trump himself).
Balance notwithstanding, Trump’s people were quick with emailed requests for retraction. Charles Glasser, who then served as the top lawyer for Bloomberg LP’s news division, fired back on Bloomberg letterhead with a four-page statement ripping Trump’s people for their gripes. “I will not here address the hyperbole or ad hominem insults which comprise the bulk of Mr. [Alan] Garten’s letter, and limit this response, after distillation, to what appear to be the salient questions at hand,” wrote Glasser. The core of the Glasser letter took issue with the very notion that a story about brand trends could even approach the realm of defamation:
The underlying thrust (and one might surmise the motivational force) of Mr. Garten’s threatening letter seems to be that the article is somehow unfair to Mr. Trump, because it is not a one-sided public-relations piece about Mr. Trump’s business successes. That seems to be what Mr. Garten is demanding, and we cannot accommodate this request. Rather, we have an obligation to present both sides of such questions, and we did so responsibly.
Because the letters threaten litigation, it is worth reminding you that, as a threshold matter, the complained-of statements do not meet black-letter standards for defamatory meaning: “A statement is defamatory if it tends to expose a person to hatred, contempt, or aversion, or to induce an evil or unsavory opinion of him in the minds of a substantial number in the community or tends to disparage a person in the way of his office, profession or trade.” Levin v. McPhee, 917 F. Supp. 230 (S.D.N.Y. 1996) aff’d 119 F.3d 189 (2d Cir. 1997). Nothing in the Article remotely shames or disparages Mr. Trump or rises to the level of inciting “contempt” or “scorn.” It is an exploration about the current –and obviously disputed — state of the brand value and nothing more.
The hard shove-back from Glasser dragged Trump himself into what had been a lawyerly face-off. Just like a lot of Trump content, his letter defies abridgment with its loopy reasoning, thin-skinnedness, singular cluelessness about journalism and humor. So we’ll just drop the entire thing in the space below.
Be sure to reread the part about the shirts and cufflinks.
Speaking of the “options” that Trump was evaluating, one was clearly the blowhard tack — threatening to take legal action and then letting the matter go away. No lawsuit against Bloomberg News arose from the dispute over the “brand” story. Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, told the Erik Wemple Blog about this spat: “Bloomberg has covered Mr. Trump very inaccurately and unfairly. Many false stories and statements have been written, but what you are referring to is ancient history. Now that Mr. Bloomberg is not running for President, perhaps the coverage will be more accurate. With a few a exceptions, they are horrible reporters that don’t have a clue, but do have an agenda. After having dealt with the organization, Mr. Trump says, ‘Its amazing someone has not taken over market share. Perhaps it was Bloomberg’s power as Mayor, but now that he’s no longer Mayor or running for President maybe that will happen. It took them six years to send the letters? What a joke.’ ”
Antagonistic statements about the media, of course, are a cornerstone of Trumpism. From the early days of the campaign, Trump has simply out-hustled his fellow media-bashers on the right, brandishing a willingness to call out specific reporters for alleged and often imaginary misdeeds, as opposed to the establishment’s milder generalized statements about bias in the mainstream media. In rallies, Trump has singled out camera operators for failing to pan the arena so as to capture the capacity crowds eager to hear him riff about his polling and the ravages of U.S. trade policy. Pile all that — and other stray incidents — on top of his pledge to “open up” libel laws so as to make it easier for him and other public figures to sue media outlets seeking to hold them accountable. Never mind that a presidential executive order couldn’t accomplish Trump’s vision for the First Amendment.
Trump’s campaign-trail hostility toward the media aligns with his attack on the entire journalistic food chain in the Bloomberg News story. Here’s a guy who doesn’t stop at bullying journalists. He wants sources to shut up, too. “There’s a chilling effect, no doubt,” says Glasser, who is now an adjunct professor of media ethics and law at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. “There’s an intended chilling effect when you write a letter like that to a source. It’s a warning to the whole world: ‘Don’t you dare talk to reporters about me ’cause this will happen to you.’ ”
Song is now employed at Douglas Elliman Real Estate, whose PR shop dutifully prohibited her from being interviewed for this story. Another source for the Bloomberg News story claimed to have received a similar threat letter from the Trump people but declined to be identified for this story. “I’m afraid he comes after me — as president, God forbid, or as a scorned non-president,” this individual told the Erik Wemple Blog.
Timothy L. O’Brien is a former New York Times reporter who was famously sued — along with his publisher — by Trump over his book, “TrumpNation: The Art of Being the Donald.” The book included a section fact-checking Trump’s claims of extraordinary net worth, triggering a libel lawsuit from the real-estate titan seeking $5 billion in damages. (The suit was dismissed.) In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, O’Brien says he saw a twofold agenda behind Trump’s civil action — one, to intimidate himself and other journalists; and two, “I think he was on a fishing expedition to find out who my sources were, and I think that, in relation to that, to ultimately go after them too.”
Deposition transcripts from O’Brien’s case bear out his claim. On the page below, for example, O’Brien is pressed by attorney Mark P. Ressler about whether he consulted anyone from the New Jersey Department of Gaming Enforcement in his reporting.
Check out another phase of the same pat-down, as O’Brien was quizzed about a specific source:
His counsel, Andrew J. Ceresney, protested, “This is an exercise where there are concerns about process of elimination, going through lists of people and, through that, the disclosure.” Says O’Brien now: “They just had a laundry list ready of people they wanted to know about and to find out if I spoke with and Trump’s lawyer just began that process. And so we made it clear that we wouldn’t continue with that.”
Going after sources in libel proceedings isn’t an isolated phenomenon, though pursuing them out of pique — as Trump appears to have done in the Bloomberg News golf piece — is a bit extreme. “We published lots of tough stories about lots of titans of industry: Jamie Dimon, Bill Ford, Frank Quattrone, Dick Grasso … They all wrote strong letters and they all made their threats and all did what they do, but none of them … displayed the kind of just, you know, the mentality that Trump did,” recalls Glasser.
If anything, Trump’s track record as an aggrieved, libel-suit-threatening nuisance suggests that a Trump administration just might outdo the Obama administration on one dubious metric: governmental leak investigations. “I think a President Trump would present the most severe threat to the First Amendment and a free press that the republic has probably ever encountered, except during wartime,” says O’Brien, who now serves as executive editor of Bloomberg View and Bloomberg Gadfly. “I could see leak investigations, I could see a blitzkrieg of subpoenas, I could see prior restraint used with impunity and I think people should think very carefully about all of that when he inveighs against the press.”