photo courtesy the U.S. Department of State
Feminists and celebrities across the political spectrum enthusiastically cheered last week when Melania Trump extracted a nearly $3 million settlement from Britain’s Daily Mail for falsely insinuating she had once been a prostitute.
Okay, they didn’t. In fact, many of the voices usually raised loudest in defense of women whose dignity and personal autonomy have been assaulted were atypically silent when the first lady reminded journalists and pretend-journalists alike that there are still some boundaries – faint and fluid though they may be – when it comes to what we say and publish about even the highest-profile individuals.
Why the silence? The Gloria Steinems, Lena Dunhams, Hillary Clintons and Michelle Obamas of the world can answer that question for themselves. In the absence of any such answer, I think it is reasonable to infer a connection between their lack of public support for Melania Trump’s legal efforts and their disdain for her taste in husbands.
This is both unfair and hypocritical, and there are at least a few voices on the left side of the political divide that recognize this. By making the Daily Mail’s publisher pay for its offensive and injurious treatment of her, Trump strikes a blow for every woman whose past is maligned or whose privacy is invaded when private photos or videos are hacked and posted online.
Trump went to court in the United Kingdom and in the United States (first in Maryland and later in New York) after Mail Media’s print and online outlets claimed to be repeating a Slovenian magazine’s assertion that a modeling agency that represented her prior to her marriage actually had an escort business and that “she provided services beyond simply modeling.” An initial retraction, published several weeks after the story first appeared last summer, disavowed that the statement was meant to be taken as truth, but justified its publication as having some potential relevance to the then-ongoing presidential campaign.
When the two lawsuits were settled last week, the Mail acknowledged that the statement was false and apologized for publishing it.
We don’t need to speculate about why the British publisher settled the case. It did so because, under the libel laws of both the United Kingdom and the United States, it was almost certain to lose, and the damages would likely have been considerably higher. The Guardian reported that the libel settlement was one of the highest to go through the British court system, but it was still well below the $150 million in damages the first lady originally sought.
America has a strong culture of press freedom. That freedom goes so far as to protect the publication of false and defamatory statements about public figures – but only if the publisher neither knows the statements are false nor publishes them in “reckless disregard” of their falsity. In plain English, this means if you are going to accuse someone of having performed sex work for cash, you’d best be able to point to a reasonable basis for believing this to be the case. Citing a supposed story in a Slovenian magazine does not measure up even to our lax standards.
In Britain, the bar is even higher. A journalist there is expected to be able to demonstrate: that the published statement is true; or that, if false, the journalist still researched the story carefully and behaved reasonably; or that the story was an accurate account of a court proceeding; or that the statement would be reasonably expected to be taken as opinion, rather than fact.
There are lots of people who disapprove of President Donald Trump, and they have lots of reasons. They are entitled. They are entitled, too, to dislike his wife (or any of his other family members) and to discount what she says or does as a result. Although it actually makes very little sense to personally dislike someone you have only met through the media, people on both sides of the political spectrum do it all the time.
But if we sign on to the idea that we don’t mock or slur people based on their gender or their appearance, then what justifies an exception for a former model who is married to a president or presidential candidate?
Nothing justifies it. The silence of those who typically speak out against such behavior just makes them appear to be hypocrites, which doesn’t in any way further the cause of giving all women the respect they are due.