The shock Tuesday night of the guilty verdict for White House reporter Kyle Rittenhouse in the CNN “NRA Attack” case brought back some gut-wrenching memories for me.
That was the afternoon a federal judge threw out a defamation lawsuit against me brought by former Colorado GOP Rep. Tom Tancredo.
The judge ruled Tancredo had not proved that the now-retired Mike McAlpine lied to CNN’s Jake Tapper or distorted evidence to make his accusation that Tancredo sold out National Guard troops fighting in Iraq.
I described the experience as indescribable.
I sat in the courtroom that day for less than half an hour, as the judge rose to enter his ruling. Afterward, I worked at the newspaper. We eventually decided to drop the case.
It was the first time I thought I had won anything, as far as I could remember. I got as far as my $1.2 million in legal costs was in; I didn’t expect to get the money back.
But I was triumphant because I had made some mistakes, but I had no evidence that would establish that I didn’t tell the truth.
The same was true of Rittenhouse. He said I’d never question the legitimacy of former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. I didn’t because, as we learned, he had.
I said Chertoff didn’t speak against the Bush administration’s plan to deploy combat troops to Iraq. Again, I didn’t because I didn’t know that.
I said an expert analyst I referred to on CNN was never a government employee. Again, I don’t know that.
Rittenhouse said the FBI didn’t know that Tancredo became a U.S. citizen after returning from World War II. Again, I don’t know that.
And so on.
In essence, he attacked — without citing any evidence for his assertion that Tancredo supported the War on Terror and got himself fired for it.
I said I thought it was possible that Tancredo planned on running for president. I didn’t because I didn’t know that, either. He said I’d never question the legitimacy of Chertoff. Again, I didn’t because I didn’t know that, either.
Why is this relevant? It’s worth considering for two reasons. First, it’s why Rittenhouse was trying to prove libel — and why the judge insisted that Tancredo prove fraud.
Second, it’s the common thread in the two cases. Both involved liberal journalists who thought the rules for liberals might not apply to conservatives.
If I believed that because they’re liberals, they’d be excused from the law of libel.
That can’t be the case. First, I’m arguing that traditional libel law applies to conservatives. That starts with affirmative and purposeful defamatory statements.
Second, the defense of fairness also applies. In the law of fairness, political commentary that rises to the level of a political campaign is fair. This applies even if the comment was false and intentional.
If Kyle Rittenhouse thought the U.S. Constitution included references to the “war on terror,” he should be able to prove I was wrong.
We’re in our pre-enlightenment days in this country. In the Thirties, Americans understood that the rights of citizens trumped the interests of newspapers and advertisers.
But in our pre-technology age, it’s unclear what rights we should have.
If it’s a constitutional issue, we’ll need those judges who would overturn our system and return us to the ancient days of English common law.
That’s why Kyle Rittenhouse’s decision to try to make his case in the federal courts was so significant, no matter how unsuccessful it was.
Lawrence Rittenhouse, the owner of the Drudge Report, thought the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment permitted him to defame Tom Tancredo.
He was wrong. Thankfully, he lost. So is that good or bad?
He doesn’t have to answer to the Supreme Court. He’s really free to do whatever he wants.
Gary Abernathy is editor of The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Wash.