What is the meaning of the following quote? “But I know newspapers. They have the first amendment, and they can tell any lie knowing it’s a lie.”

Expert Answers
Lorraine Caplan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This quote is an inaccurate representation of the First Amendment of the Constitution.  This quote implies that the subject has been lied about and that the First Amendment protects newspapers that lie. That is a misleading characterization of the law.  The First Amendment does guarantee freedom of the press and free speech for everyone.  However, there are limits to the press's freedom, as there are limits to free speech, and these limits intertwine when a newspaper actually lies or is so irresponsible it does not care whether or not it has lied.    

First, it is important to understand what Constitutional protections provide.  The First Amendment, as with all the other amendments, protects from government interference, and that is all.  It says nothing about individuals' or organizations' ability to repress free speech or the freedom of the press. For example, an employer can control what you can or cannot say on the job, and a publisher of a newspaper can control what does or does not go in the paper.  

The press's freedom, as well as its free speech rights, are limited by the laws of libel.  If one's reputation is harmed by an untruth in writing, one sues for libel. The government has nothing to do with this. It is a civil suit for monetary damages, what is called a tort, a civil wrong against a person or property. If a jury or judge finds that a person's reputation has been damaged by a newspaper because of a lie, the newspaper must pay the victim. 

Since the press can and does make mistakes from time to time, it will often defend by stating that it has simply made a mistake, having done the best it could to ensure accuracy given the exigencies of getting news out quickly.  In many instances, the press has reported on public officials who have sought to recover monetary damages for negative reporting on them.  One of these suits eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, in a case called New York Times v. Sullivan (1964).

Briefly, in Sullivan, the New York Times, in the middle of the civil rights era, published an advertisement that stated that Alabama police had mistreated and arrested civil rights protesters. It turned out that the number of instances in which this had happened were fewer than the ad claimed.  Sullivan, a police commissioner, demanded a retraction, which the paper refused to issue, and then he sued.  The Supreme Court held that the paper could not be held liable for libel even though the ad was not accurate, stating that Sullivan would have to prove "actual malice," which the court defined as "knowledge that the information was false" or that it was published "with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not."

This does provide the press with more latitude than some people are happy with, hence the quote you have offered. But the court was trying to balance the need to protect public officials from being libeled with the freedom of the press to publish the news as best it could within its own time constraints.  The press is given this latitude, certainly, because of the First Amendment, but it is more important in a democracy to allow the press to criticize public officials, even if there is an occasional inaccuracy.  The most reputable newspapers check facts very carefully, but they are not perfect.  So unless it can be shown that a publication knew something was a lie or recklessly disregarded whether or not it was a lie, it is not going to be liable for libel. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

One justification of this remark by Steve Wozniak (an electronic genius and the inventor of the Apple I computer) is similar to what Donald Trump said recently when he was in Loredo, Texas. A Univision reporter allegedly took remarks of Trump's from different occasions and pieced them together, thus implying that he had said all that was recorded on the same occasion (rather than at separate times) and questioned Trump about his "statement." As a result, Trump claimed that the meaning of the two statements now made into one was different from the two original statements' implications. Trump refused to give the statement any credence or respond to the question.

Technically, then, the reporter did not fabricate what Trump had said, so there is no case for slander or libel, and he is protected under the First Amendment. However, one could argue that, as Mr. Wozniak aptly points out, the newsman lied because he manipulated the words in order to create an untruth in the impression he wants the listeners to garner from this statement.

Newspapers and other media do not necessarily misreport or lie. But they often leave out important details and write or say things in such a way that they use a person's words to generation a certain impression or put a certain slant upon the words reported. Because the pieces of speech that they have reported are taken out of context, but have been spoken, they can, indeed, invent new meanings. So, in this respect, Mr. Wozniak is correct in his statement.