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Friday, December 9, 2016

The late William F. Buckley’s journalistic baby, National Review, is in deep legal trouble.

This week it asked subscribers like me for donations to pay lawyers fending off a libel suit. Those legal bills, even before a trial it may well lose, could sink the leading right-wing journal in America, The Week says.

Progressives, liberals, conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders should all care about this, but not for the reasons National Review cites.

The magazine’s January 27 issue asserts “at stake most narrowly is the question of whether [climate scientist Michael] Mann’s work can be vigorously criticized, and more broadly is the fate of free speech in an increasingly politically correct society.”

Nonsense. Not to mention bad writing and editing.

National Review mischaracterizes both the facts and the import of the issues in a way that has come to define the magazine since 1997 under editor Rich Lowry.

All that is at stake here are the business interests of National Review, Lowry, writer Mark Steyn and the other defendants — as well as, of course, the wrongly maligned Dr. Mann.

Libel lawsuits are notoriously difficult to win, as they should be.

But Mann has powerful allies: facts, independent investigations that found “no basis” for any accusation of intellectual dishonesty and, perhaps most significantly, the studied refusal by both the magazine and Steyn to acknowledge error and correct the record.

In a 2012 post still available at National Review Online, Steyn reprinted an already discredited quote that compared Mann, who teaches at Penn State, to assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, the serial child rapist who was protected by college administrators.

The quoted language included this:

Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of political science, except that instead of molesting children he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science.

Steyn then slightly distanced himself from this quote before writing that Mann was “behind the fraudulent climate-change ‘hockey-stick’ graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus” and musing that “if an institution is prepared to cover up systemic statutory rape of minors, what won’t it cover up?”

Lowry refused Mann’s request to take down the post, writing a month later that rather than suggesting criminality, Steyn was “savagely witty and stung poor Michael” by exposing “intellectually bogus and wrong” research reports.

If Mann filed suit against National Review, Lowry concluded, he “risks making an ass of himself.”

We all make mistakes. When journalists err our duty is prompt, forthright and candid correction, not piling on.

National Review is in trouble because its minimalist “reporting” combined with lightweight analysis was compounded by Lowry’s conduct.  Not owning up to these mistakes was not just unprofessional. It was stupid.

Would that Lowry and his writers attended any of my frequent lectures on how to report. They could learn not just interviewing and fact-gathering techniques, but what I call the first three rules of journalism:

Rule One: If your mother says she loves you, check it out.

Rule Two: Crosscheck and crosscheck until the facts are bolted down solid.

Rule Three: Put those facts in their proper place in the universe.

National Review’s assertion that “the state of free speech” depends on the outcome of Mann’s lawsuit is ludicrously out of proportion.

And Mann’s lawsuit is not about being “vigorously criticized,” but National Review’s disregard for facts.

I have been reading National Review since my teens, one of more than 40 magazines I take that provide a vast array of perspectives on many subjects.

Now and then over the last half-century I agreed with National Review. But, sadly, ever since editor Lowry took charge, it’s mostly laughter — derisive laughter.

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