Call it the Hulk Hogan Syndrome. Or maybe the Donald Trump Effect.
By whatever name, its characteristic signature is a general public antipathy toward the news media. And the most dramatic result seems to be a series of eye-bugging legal judgments against journalists and news outlets — reflecting a shift in a legal climate that had once been more favorable to reporting and reporters.
On Friday, a jury in Charlottesville found in favor of Nicole Eramo, the University of Virginia dean who had sued Rolling Stone for libel over what the magazine had acknowledged was a flawed story about a campus gang-rape.
The hometown jury decided that the magazine and its reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, had acted with “actual malice” and “reckless disregard” for the truth in reporting the 2014 story “A Rape on Campus.” It will now decide how much to award to Eramo, who was portrayed in the article as indifferent and unhelpful to the alleged victim, whose account of the assault was revealed after publication to be filled with falsehoods. The dean is seeking damages of $7.5 million.
This verdict follows Hulk Hogan’s successful litigation of an invasion-of-privacy claim against the website Gawker for posting a sex tape involving the former pro wrestler in 2012. A Florida jury awarded Hogan $140.1 million earlier this year; Gawker sought to appeal, but the judgment and cost of litigation led to its bankruptcy, the sale of its parent company and the closure of the website. The bankrupt company and its founder, Nick Denton, settled all claims this week with Hogan for $31 million.
In a case that attracted far less attention, a North Carolina jury last month found in favor of a state official who had sued the Raleigh News & Observer for a series of stories in 2010 that questioned the official’s expertise and her testimony in a 2006 murder trial. The judgment included $1.5 million in compensatory damages and $7.5 million in punitive damages — an award so large it exceeded the state’s legal cap and was reduced by a judge.
Libel verdicts are often overturned on appeal — both Rolling Stone and the Raleigh paper have vowed to appeal — but the outcomes suggest that juries are eager to punish the news media these days, legal experts suggest.
“Juries have never been the media’s best friend . . . but I think we are seeing a trend against the press lately,” said Sonja R. West, a First Amendment expert at the University of Georgia law school. “The courts and the public seem to be becoming less likely to give the press the benefit of the doubt and more interested in protecting individuals from what they view as the powerful and sensationalistic media.”
Theoretically, the law sets a standard that is highly protective of the media, forcing plaintiffs to prove that journalists knew a story was wrong before they published it. However, “juries often still sympathize with the plaintiff,” West said.
Mistrust of the news media has been growing for decades, according to public surveys. The percentage of people saying they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media’s accuracy and reliability tied its all-time low in a Gallup survey last year.
The issue has been front and center in the 2016 presidential race thanks largely to Trump, who has denounced the news media almost as often as he has criticized his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
More directly, he threatened last month to sue the New York Times over its disclosure of his 1995 tax returns and revelations that he inappropriately touched two women in separate incidents years ago. (He hasn’t made good on those threats yet). He has also advocated “opening up” the legal standards that have made it difficult for public figures to win libel awards.
All told, “the libel climate is changing,” said University at Buffalo legal scholar Samantha Barbas. Well-known people “may be more confident that courts and juries will be sympathetic to their claims.”
The Hogan and Rolling Stone suits indicate that public figures are becoming more willing to consider legal action, she said, as did Kim Kardashian’s suit against one news outlet and threats against others who reported that her recent robbery was staged.
Some of the public’s skepticism of the news media has been driven by social media, which has made it easier than ever to distribute stories that impeach the validity of news reports and government actions, Barbas said.
But some media institutions, she said, have encouraged the rising cynicism by pushing the envelope on “sensational stories to attract eyeballs in an information-saturated environment.”
Social media may have emboldened potential litigants in another way, she said: “I think we’ve all become especially conscious of our reputations and images, and the serious harm that can happen when someone does damage to our reputation, especially when the facts are false.”