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On Slander

March 22, 2015

Our previous post elicited an irate response from Fred Dicker. He said that our comments in the post were “slanderous.” We’re going to respond in a way that we regard as measured and respectful, although we doubt he will see it that way.

First, let us consider the matter of slander. That word has a specific legal meaning.  Slander or libel occurs when someone makes a false statement that damages another person’s reputation. There’s more to it than just that. It’s actually a high bar, and that’s by design so as not to unduly inhibit freedom of speech. For libel to occur, a statement has to be false, with reckless disregard for the facts, and malicious, with intent to cause specific harm to an individual.

At issue here, however, is not any statement or allegation we made at NT2, but the reporting of the Wall Street Journal and the noted author Michael Shnayerson. It’s Shnayerson’s account of Dicker’s interaction with the Governor on a book deal that’s the issue. Dicker says the account is false.

This happens to be a blog that comments critically on journalists and journalism. Our job, as we see it, is to process the available information and opine. And in this regard, allow us to describe our exact thought process:

When we first read Dicker’s note,  we asked each other: Does he have a point? Are we being unfair to him in some way?

But then we thought to ourselves: Wait a minute – This is Fred Dicker, the Fred Dicker.  This is a person who has made a career of leveling withering criticism at others, and he is objecting to us saying that the circumstances of his book deal raise questions about journalistic standards. Really?

Think about the arrangement that Shnayerson described. Shnayerson says that Dicker and Cuomo had a special relationship in which Cuomo helped Dicker find a ghost writer to help him improve his book draft so it could be published.  That’s quite a revelation. Again, Dicker disputes it.

The key question here is : Who is right? Shnayerson or Dicker?

Before we tackle that, a digression: In our view, it was always a bizarre construct for Dicker, a working journalist, to be writing a book about Cuomo. Remember that, at that time, Dicker was hosting Cuomo on his radio show. Cuomo would appear regularly and say with great familiarity and affection: “Top ‘o the mornin’ to you, Frederic.”

Our view then and now is that Dicker should have taken a leave to write the book. That would have been the most ethical thing to do.

On this specific matter, it was pointed out to us by a long-time LCAer that Dicker was a harsh critic of Alan Chartock for doing that very thing with Mario Cuomo. Dicker used to mock Chartock over his “obsequious” radio program. He specifically questioned the propriety of Chartock’s arrangement with the elder Cuomo in writing books.

Now the crux of it:  Who is more credible? Is it Dicker or is it Shnayerson and the Journal? For the time being, we’re going to say that that it’s Shnayerson and the Journal.

Why, exactly?  Well, we think Journal’s news team is first rate – with solid reporters and excellent editors. We don’t know Shnayerson, but our research on him indicates that he has an impeccable reputation.   As for Mr. Dicker – we won’t impugn his reputation. Instead, we’ll simply say diplomatically that he has become a controversial figure in journalism.  How and why?

Well, consider a column he wrote last year. He reported that the Attorney General of the State of New York snorted cocaine in the back of a bar in Albany.  Dicker’s sole attribution for this story was a person who simply is not regarded as serious person. In fact, the individual is a comedian – the “official comedian” of his radio show. How Dicker could cite this individual as an authoritative source is beyond us. Making matters worse, that individual, again the sole source for the story, immediately repudiated the entirety of what Dicker had reported.

This wasn’t an “oops, oh well, never mind” situation. No matter how you feel about Dicker, you have to admit that this was a major breakdown in journalistic standards. The Attorney General was slandered.

This incident is not the only reason we, as media critics, question Mr. Dicker’s credibility. Last year, we did an exercise.  We looked back at the columns he had written and tried to make an assessment of their accuracy. It wasn’t a close call. So much of what he’d written, with hindsight, turned out to not only erroneous, but preposterous. One example was a column in which he claimed “Cuomo to Dump Hochul, Fearing Wu Primary Victory.” There’s simply no way that column and many others pass any kind of critical review.

That’s not all. We occasionally listen to Mr. Dicker’s radio program and television commentary. We confess, however, that we do so much less frequently since we heard a specific monologue. He was arguing against the SAFE Act and said that people living in rural areas need guns capable of firing large amounts of bullets without reloading. His reasoning was as follows: “What happens if there are eight people breaking into your house and you only have seven bullets in a clip? Then you couldn’t get all of them.”

We think this specific comment and other comments Mr. Dicker has made on the topic of gun control are in a word – crazy. And in this regard, we are wholly entitled to our views. If we think Dicker’s gun views are crazy, if we think his reporting can’t hold up to critical scrutiny, if we think he has violated journalistic standards in specific instances, we have every right to say so. And here’s the critical point – this isn’t slander at all. It’s commentary on matters that are already part of the public sphere.

We’re not making a false allegation that Dicker snorted cocaine in an Albany bar or anything like it. We are, instead, expressing our opinion on the work and public comments of a public figure.

Now having said all of this, let us make an affirmative commitment to Mr. Dicker. We are not people who form an opinion and never revisit it.  In fact, we are constantly reevaluating our positions based on new information that comes to our attention. See our next post for an example of that.

Here’s our pledge: We are going to wait until Shnayerson’s book comes out. We are going to read his account carefully and consider what both he and Dicker have to say on the matter in question – the book deal. We promise Mr. Dicker and everyone else that we’ll conduct this review with a truly open mind. Then we’ll revisit the issue in another post and give Dicker his due – whatever that may be.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 22, 2015 1:07 PM

    Brilliant.

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