What is an actionable libel, and what is merely an ugly but constitutionally protected opinion? That is the problem posed by the case of David Horowitz vs. Time magazine -- the caption of the potential lawsuit my Salon colleague recently threatened to file.
Even if he doesn't sue his tormentors at Time-Warner, as now appears to be
the case, Horowitz himself exemplifies the problems of a political culture where debate has grown increasingly nasty and personal. And whether or not he is a "real live bigot," as the headline over that Time column described him, he is most assuredly a skillful publicist, whose self-serving response to this incident shouldn't stand unanswered.
The facts of the matter, as well as the views of Horowitz, his friends and his supporters, are only a click or two away and need not be rehearsed again here in full. The short version is that an African-American writer named Jack E. White, after reading a typically hyperbolic Horowitz column about blacks and guns, was sufficiently offended to accuse its author of racism in his own Time column.
Unlike most people criticized in newsmagazines, White's target was not exactly defenseless. In possession of a tax-exempt foundation, a mailing list, a Web site -- as well as instant access to the pages of Salon News -- Horowitz scrambled the jets to mount a loud protest to the editors of Time.
White's screed, he suggested, was just the latest episode in two decades of leftist calumny designed to disable an effective spokesman for the right (namely, him). In his mind, at least, those words in Time possessed an almost occult power to injure him and his family; indeed, he claimed to fear a possible threat to his life as a result of their publication.
Thundering to his rescue came Camille Paglia, innumerable devotees of the Horowitz oeuvre and Salon editor in chief David Talbot, not to mention the tinhorn troops of the Free Republic and assorted other conservative redoubts, and, neither last nor least, the estimable Matt Drudge.
The Aug. 25 headline on the Drudge Report proclaimed, "SALON.COM COLUMNIST PLANS $50 MILLION LAWSUIT AGAINST TIME MAG: Horowitz says [he] is planning to launch a $50 million lawsuit against Time magazine for defamation of character!"
Up to that moment, almost anyone might have felt a twinge of sympathy for Horowitz (though it would be difficult to muster the degree of pity he habitually seems to feel for himself).
According to his plaintive letter to Time editor Walter Isaacson, he is simply a well-meaning conservative with a lifelong record of support for civil rights, who was suddenly and viciously mugged in a mass-circulation magazine. He has plenty of African-American friends, including his own daughter-in-law; why, he even raises money for little homeless children, many of whom are undoubtedly black!
While there is certainly some truth in Horowitz's anodyne portrait of himself, it is hardly a complete picture. By my standards he probably isn't a racist, despite his provocative claim that racial oppression is "mythology." By other people's standards, that remark alone would qualify him for a white hood.
But even if Jack White's charge of bigotry was grossly unfair, does that mean he and Time should be held liable for a columnist's opinion in a court of law? Is mere name-calling a valid cause of legal action in the freewheeling home of the First Amendment?
If such were the low standard for libel, the blustering Horowitz would have been bankrupted by jury verdicts long ago. Week after week, he rarely refrains from blasting his political opponents with the harshest possible epithets.
People with whom he disagrees about the V-chip are "book burners."
People who dislike Charlton Heston's promotion of guns are "compulsively bigoted ... little liberal Lenins."
The president is suspected of "treason." The president's aides are guilty of "McCarthyism."
And so he fumes on and on and on, in an agitprop imitation of Tourette's syndrome.
The Horowitz column that so angered Jack White included references to Al Sharpton as a "racist bloviator" and "destructive racial demagogue," and went on to decry "racial ambulance-chasing" by Jesse Jackson and Kweisi Mfume.
"Unfortunately," he wrote, "they have made their successes off the backs of the truly afflicted and disadvantaged African-Americans their demagoguery leaves behind."
Sharpton, Jackson or Mfume may well irritate Horowitz, but his notion that they are racists living high off the suffering of their community is a rather controversial opinion, not a statement of fact. He presumes to call other people racists and then wants to sue anyone who says the same thing about him.
No matter how intemperate or offensive his opinions may be, Horowitz has every right to express them, of course, especially in Salon News. He is, however, a laboratory specimen of what Nat Hentoff was writing about when he published a book several years ago titled "Free Speech for Me But Not for Thee." He is what we used to call, in the neighborhood where I grew up, somebody who can dish it out but can't take it.
For the more conscientious and less partisan of Horowitz's sympathizers, that Drudge Report headline about his intention to sue Time should have provided a nudge to memory and a hint about their hero's hypocrisy. They might recall that it was he, in his preferred guise as defender of free expression, who became the chief fund-raiser and provider of legal counsel to Drudge in the famed libel case brought by presidential assistant Sidney Blumenthal (who is, you should know, also my longtime friend).
Unlike Horowitz vs. Time, Blumenthal vs. Drudge revolved around a matter of fact, not opinion: Had Blumenthal beaten his wife, as certain nameless Republican creeps told Drudge, or had he not? When Drudge ascertained that there were no "court records" to uphold that terrible lie, he published a retraction, which didn't, however, necessarily protect him from a libel claim.
What Blumenthal and his family demanded was that Drudge reveal who had fed him this politically motivated slander. By exposing those liars, Drudge probably could have ended the lawsuit before it began. But the Internet gossip, who proclaimed his disdain for all journalistic constraints, pleaded that he couldn't "reveal his sources," even though they had misled him with a very bad story.
Honorable people surely may differ about whether Blumenthal vs. Drudge is an assault on the First Amendment or a vindication of journalistic standards. But it is hard to see how Horowitz can square his unstinting support for Drudge with his own threat to sue Time. He now wants to force Time to clear his name, but has mocked Blumenthal for seeking the same redress from Drudge.
Back then, in a letter to someone who had criticized him for supporting Drudge, Horowitz explained that he regarded the White House aide's lawsuit as an overreaction to the ordinary fortunes of political warfare. "Certainly no one in politics is immunized from name-calling, gross misrepresentation and unfounded accusation," he wrote to one of Blumenthal's furious friends. "That is deplorable but it is also the territory, and has been for a long time. In such an environment, all anyone can ask is to be able to respond to the slanders that are made and correct them."
That is precisely what Time instantly offered to Horowitz -- and the magazine already has linked its Web version of Jack White's column to Horowitz's response in Salon News. So perhaps he should heed his own advice to Blumenthal and desist from launching a lawsuit against Time.
Maybe he should also try a little rhetorical restraint next time before he threatens to sue anyone for calling him nasty names. Dish it out, David, by all means, but remember -- you have to take it, too.