A Libel in Texas

by Kevin D. Williamson

As regular readers may have noticed, I am very fond of my home town but have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with my home-town newspaper, the (mighty, mighty) Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, and I had to beat it up a bit in my last print piece. My story was on the ridiculous indictment of Governor Rick Perry, and the fact that the purpose of such indictments is to harass, tarnish, and bankrupt the political enemies of Travis County Democrats, not to convict them of crimes. When I described the case of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, one of my editors here at National Review did something I’ve done any number of times myself: He sent the story back to me with a note to the effect that what I’d written seemed like it couldn’t possibly be true. But it is: After conducting a warrantless raid on Hutchison’s office, the prosecution declined to even present a case against her at trial. The way it works is this: Prosecutors know that evidence gathered in a warrantless raid probably will be ruled inadmissible at trial, but they do not really care — they figure that they’ll get something embarrassing enough that they can coerce their victim into some kind of plea deal before the case makes it to court. When Hutchison did not fold, the case went to trial, where it was dismissed in, if memory serves, about eleven minutes.

Which brings me back to the Avalanche-Journal, where I did two separate stints as an editor over the years. The newspaper’s web site currently is carrying the headline: “Rick Perry: Newest Member of GOP Felons’ Club,” over a column written by a Democratic activist, Carol Morgan. The headline is libelous on its face, meeting all three criteria in that it is: 1. false; 2. defamatory; 3. published with actual malice or reckless disregard for the truth. When I first saw the headline, I wrote to the newspaper’s publisher and its editor, advising them of their very serious error, but they apparently are sticking to their defense, which is that they are too lazy, feckless, and irresponsible to edit content that appears on their web site. (Web columns are “not edited by the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal,” according to a disclaimer, as though that changed the fact that they are publishing them.)

Governor Perry, as a matter of fact, is not a felon: There is a world of difference between an indictment and a conviction. The grotesquely irresponsible story published by the Lubbock newspaper declines to mention that the cases against Hutchison and Tom DeLay (indicted by the same office) were in the end laughed out of court. The judge in the DeLay case wrote that the evidence suggested very strongly that DeLay had gone out of his way to comply with the law rather than to subvert it, and noted that the jury had been grievously misinformed about the substantive legal matter in question. (DeLay was charged with “laundering” legally obtained campaign funds, a legal impossibility inasmuch as only ill-gotten gains can be “laundered.”) (And never mind that DeLay also was charged with breaking a law that had not been passed at the time he was accused of having broken it — insert your own Terminator-inspired time-travel joke.)

Which is to say, the so-called felons’ club described by the article contains no felons. A bit of news that one might expect to appear in the newspaper, even in an op-ed column. This is not a matter of opinion or a matter of interpretation — it is a matter of fact. The assertion at issue is documentably, undeniably false. And unless the author in question is living under a particularly heavy rock, she must know it to be false — which means that it is a lie told with malice aforethought.

And that is the point of these dishonest indictments. Simpletons hear the word “indictment” and assume that something wicked is afoot, cheap partisans such as Carol Morgan peddle falsehoods, and credulous buffoons who operate newspapers publish those falsehoods under their flags and with their imprimaturs.

I have been a newspaper editor, and I have made my share of mistakes, some of them spectacular, many of them embarrassing. But I have never intentionally published something that I knew to be false, which is what is happening in this case, and no doubt in many other cases around the state. It does not make political, legal, or financial sense for Governor Perry to sue the pants off of these clowns — and, to be sure, being the hack Democrat at the newspaper in Lubbock, Texas, surely must be its own kind of hell. But the writer and, especially, the editors and publishers should be ashamed of themselves nonetheless — and those who rely upon them for their political news should know exactly what sort of credibility is associated with their work. Shame on them all — readers deserve better.