Telling Lies about Opponents in Print Is Bad Behavior for Nonprofits

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April 7, 2014; Media Matters

At the intersection of nonprofit journalism and politics, errors get made, apologies issued, and corrections inserted. It happens here at Nonprofit Quarterly, particularly with our dependence on source articles for our newswires, which may themselves contain errors. But when a journal faces a libel suit filed by a public figure and the courts give it some play, the consequences can get very serious.

In this instance, venerable conservative magazine The National Review and nonprofit think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute have been hit with a libel suit by Penn State University professor Michael Mann. For Mann to win his case, he has to prove that the magazine and CEI published something about him that they knew was false and that “represented a reckless disregard for the truth,” according to libel expert Robert Drechsel, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who specializes in media law.

The story in this case dates back to 2009, when more than 1,000 emails were stolen from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. Conservatives claimed that the emails revealed that Mann had manipulated research data in order to manufacture evidence of global warming. Seven institutions, including Penn State and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, reviewed the emails for indications that Mann might have been engaged in misrepresenting his research. All concluded that there was no wrongdoing on Mann’s part.

One might have thought that this unsubstantiated “Climategate” controversy would have died then and there. However, Mann is a professor at the college infamous for employing Jerry Sandusky as an assistant football coach. Amazingly, that became part of the story as concocted by CEI. As everyone knows, Sandusky was convicted of molesting children and is now in prison. There’s no actual connection between Mann and Sandusky, but a conservative blogger at CEI, followed by a writer for the National Review Online, published a story linking Mann and Sandusky, at least conceptually, that Mann considers libelous.

In 2012, CEI blogger Rand Simberg wrote on a blog that Mann was “the Jerry Sandusky of climate change, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data.” Following the Simberg blog, Mark Steyn at the National Review Online quoted Simberg and then added, “Not sure I’d have extended that metaphor all the way into the locker-room showers with quite the zeal Mr Simberg does, but he has a point.”

Quite appropriately, Mann demanded that CEI and the National Review retract the statements, apologize, and even pay damages for writing that he had faked his research data and was somehow comparable to a convicted child molester. After CEI and the Review refused to do so, Mann filed his libel suit. The problem for CEI and the Review is that the charge that Mann faked, distorted, and manipulated his data in order to reach a preordained, political outcome is a factual issue, not a matter of opinion. If Mann can prove that the charge of fraudulence in his research is false, he can claim that he was defamed by the misinformation circulated by the nonprofit and the magazine. If, however, Simberg or Steyn or both knew the allegations were incorrect and they wrote and published what they did from malice despite its falsehood, they could be in bigger trouble.

If seven separate investigations proved Mann innocent of the charges that he had faked his research findings, one would think that Simberg and Steyn should have known, if only from osmosis, that to publish what they did might be seen as intentionally promoting a malicious falsehood about the Penn State professor.

The impact on both institutions—the magazine and the think tank—won’t be cheap if Mann wins his case. Expressing opinions is fine, but misrepresenting the facts could cost a nonprofit like CEI big time resources.—Rick Cohen

  • Leo morgan

    If only you practised what you preach.

  • Jim K

    If only “seven separate investigations proved Mann innocent”. The investigations don’t because most don’t even mention him.

  • TOMt

    If only 7 investigations cleared him. Telling lies in print is bad. Telling lies in your court affidavits like Mann just did is far worse.

  • Conrad Dunkerson

    Jim K, that is both false and irrelevant. Mann was not the main focus of all of the investigations, but he WAS the subject of most and “mentioned” in all of them. Further, all of the investigations listed in Mann’s filings to the court looked at his RESEARCH and found no evidence of fraud.

  • TomT

    That is a flat out lie spread by Mann.

    Take what he said about the Muir Russel inquiry in his filing to the court.

    “Three months later, the University of East Anglia published the Independent Climate Change Email Review report, prepared under the oversight of Sir Muir Russell. The report examined whether manipulation or suppression of data occurred and concluded that “the scientists’ rigor and honesty are not in doubt.][38 – Muir Russell Report]“

    Notice that Dr. Mann uses a double quote which means an exact quote from the report not a paraphrase and note the spelling of rigor.

    Now take what the Muir Russel inquiry actually said

    “On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.”

    Notice the Mann changed the quote and misspelled rigor with the American spelling.

    Dr. Mann does not work for CRU only CRU was a focus of the Muir Russel investigation. Dr. Mann filed a false statement in an affidavit to the court. Now how is one supposed to trust the scientific work of such a Mann.

  • Maureen

    It might have been useful for the writer to actually list the seven investigations and where exactly Mann is either mentioned or exonerated. Because if the writer had actually read the conclusions of the investigations he would have found that the investigations DO NOT exonerate Mann because there were never about him. Furthermore Mann has been caught out in trying to ‘rewrite’ the conclusions of the investigations and present them in his court documents.

  • astro

    Mann comes off as a fraud. Be honest. If you are scientist and people merely question your conclusions and your “science” has the slightest validity, do you go running to court to sue your critics? Of course not. You stand by your findings and invite criticism knowing it doesn’t matter. A person runs to court because he knows he is guilty and wants to silence criticism rather than face it. It’s a well known form of lawfare.

    The problem with this whole issue is that the “science” now involves a massive investment of political and financial capital. The scientists stand to lose a major source of funding. And “global warming” has become a plank of the Democratic Party and the UN because it conveniently supports their agenda. All in the context climate prediction where the science isn’t really reliable yet. Global warming is now a dogma. When you see other climate scientists with a vested interested insisting that “the science is settled” and that Mann was “exonerated” it comes off as repugnant.

    The real danger for the defendants is not the merits of the case but the venue. Will the DC courts be fair when the party in power stands to lose big time if a major part of their platform is questioned.

    That said, Mann’s guilt was established the moment he brought the lawsuit.

  • Geoff

    Dear Mr. Cohen,

    It is good to read your comment that in “nonprofit journalism”, “errors get made, apologies issued, and corrections inserted”. Are you preparing your acknowledgement of errors, apology and correction?

    In your comment you say “seven separate investigations proved Mann innocent”. Would you like to point to the language in any of those investigations, other than the investigation by PSU that “prove Mann innocent”. Do you find Mann’s name in any of the conclusions of those non-PSU investigations?

    You say there is “no actual connection between Mann and Sandusky”. OK perhaps you over looked that they both have been employed by PSU, and both have been “investigated” by PSU. In both cases, the person ultimately responsible for the investigations was Graham Spanier, the Penn State president. . If you’ve done the slightest reading on the matter, you will know that the special investigation into the Sandusky matter, headed by Louis Freeh, former head of the FBI, found it is “reasonable to conclude” that the most powerful leaders at the University, including Spanier, “repeatedly concealed critical facts” from the authorities, the University, the Penn State community and the public at large.
    The investigation attributed as the most significant cause of concealing facts was the purpose of “avoidance of the consequences of bad publicity”.

    Now without getting into the details of the PSU “investigation” into Mann and his work, the “investigating” committee noted that Mann was likely to be innocent as he had won “many prestigious awards and recognitions”. This comment is of course entirely beside the point of whether Mann has accurately reported the data, in quite an analogous way to the point that Coach Sandusky had won many prestigious honors for PSU having no bearing on whether or not he had molested students.

    I’m sure Mr. Cohen, if you take a minute or two to look into the Spanier case, you will find that he is under indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice, among other charges, and facing 30 years or more in prison.

    These circumstances led Mr. Steyn (and others) to wonder that if Mr. Spanier was indeed trying to avoid the “consequences of bad publicity” in the Sandusky case by withholding facts, is this evidence that he is the sort of person who might consider to withhold facts in the Mann case also to avoid bad publicity?

    You may want to re-read the headline of your comment as most people agree telling “lies about opponents in print is bad behavior”. I look forward to your correction and apology

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Geoff: thanks for your note. it seems like we’ve had several that all tracked similar language, but yours seemed original. The item you’re referring to was a “newswire” commenting on the source article which I’m sure you noted is from Media Matters ( If you’ve read our writing about Sandusky and Spanier, and I can’t imagine you haven’t read the several pieces we did on that scandal, I’m sure you’ve noted our detailed concerns about Spanier. But assuming that Spanier’s behavior regarding Sandusky characterizes Mann is actually pretty insulting to everyone at Penn State. It’s an overreach to impugn Mann with Sandusky and Spanier regardless of what Mann might have done or not done. That sort of ad hominem slap–or other kinds of personal insults–don’t really help one’s case and contribute to the perception that the attack on Mann (or us, for simply reporting on the Media Matters comment) is acrimonious. The accuracy or inaccuracy of Mann’s research and whether or not his charge of libel is upheld or rejected by the courts is not part of the Spanier/Sandusky episode. Thanks for reading and responding. Now that our brief newswire on Mann got such an interesting and heated reaction, we’ll be watching what the courts do with Mann’s lawsuit. Thanks for writing.

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Astro: thanks very much for writing. It does seem interesting that the subtext of the pro and con around Mann’s charges of libel really come off as debates about the science of global warming. Yes, the Democratic Party has been more focused on climate change than the Republicans, though it seems that Republicans have many people who accept it as fact, though there are debates about what to do about it. Mann’s lawsuit, however, doesn’t mean that he believes that his science is flawed. There have been plenty of cases of scientists whose research has been challenged and attacked and yes, you’re right, they don’t file suit. But in this case, this isn’t a matter of debating the merits of one’s science, but charges about falsifying the data, and then charges that the people who might have made those charges did so with motives that extended beyond the specifics of the science into the character and probity of the scientist. So the fact that Mann filed suit doesn’t not establish guilt. That’s going to be pretty much a matter for the courts. Given the extensive reaction our brief newswire go, like you we’ll be watching to see what the courts have to say. thanks very much for your comment.

  • Brian Macker

    Yep, Mann has been caught numerous times lying in print. With that and his abuse of statistics one wonders why anyone still believes him.

  • Brian Macker

    Do you think your article was original? I believe we’ve heard the claims about being exonerated by investigations before… from Mann. This goes back several years ago. This is a false claim you need to retract.

  • Rick Cohen

    Dear Brian: the newswire commented on a Media Matters source article, as I’m sure you noted. The source for the reviews was the Media Matters article. Thanks for your note.

  • Geoff

    Dear Mr. Cohen,

    I’ve noted your reply which doesn’t seem completely germane to my comment.

    In your original opinion piece, you say “seven separate investigations proved Mann innocent”. This is simply not true. Would you like to make this correction? You can read the summary showing the statement is false ( ) or you can look at each of the separate investigations but the result is the same – your statement is untrue.

    You also say there’s “no actual connection between Mann and Sandusky” but I’ve demonstrated three actual connections. Would you like to correct your earlier statement?

    Your response is on matters of style and law. I don’t disagree the original comment is perhaps a bit over the top, but much commentary is these days. The question is, should that form the basis for a tort? Are you at risk of being sued because your have quoted exactly the same offending words?

    The ACLU is opposing Mann in his legal quest, and they present considerable precedent (see ). The issue is free speech and whether Mann is able to shut down vigorous dissent.

    You may want to claim in your defence that you were simply quoting others, but since it has now been demonstrated to you that at least two of your statements are false, I encourage you to consider your responsibility as a journalist.

  • Rick Cohen

    Hi Geoff: Once again, the source for the 7 items is the Media Matters reference. All of our newswires reference the source article. I’m sure that the courts will determine whether Mann or his accusers are right on this score, and you may want to direct the information you have to Media Matters to help them correct the record if they can be convinced that the reviews of Mann do not exonerate him of the charge of having fraudulently manipulated his data. The connection between Mann and a child molester, even if they’ve trod the same campus, doesn’t quite hold up. Both were employed by Penn State, both were investigated by Penn State, but the fact that they both had the experience of working for Penn State as led by Spanier, that doesn’t justify the characterization of Mann in a comparison with Sandusky. Were I a critic of Mann, I think I could have posited the challenges raised by Mann’s critics without having to go so far as to link him with a convicted child molester. You may be right that much commentary is like that, but I don’t think that’s right. I have no problem with people expressing sharp opinions, but when it gets into personal characterizations, I think it’s best to give that sort of thing wide berth.

  • Geoff

    Hi Rick,

    Thanks for posting my comments. I’m prepared to let them stand and your readers can make their own judgments. I’d vaguely heard of Media Matters but a quick look at their website shows they are a “non-profit progressive research and information center dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analysing and correcting conservative misinformation”. It’s hard to tell these days what people mean by conservative or liberal, but telling falsehoods about individuals who are promoting free speech is wrong, no matter by whom.

    In closing, I urge again urge you to consider the implications of the headline of your commentary.