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14 Jan, 2020 00:00

‘Culture of clickbait’: Harvard law professor sues NYT for defamation over ‘false statements’ in Epstein donations story

‘Culture of clickbait’: Harvard law professor sues NYT for defamation over ‘false statements’ in Epstein donations story

A Harvard law professor has filed a defamation suit against the New York Times, alleging the influential newspaper soiled his reputation by distorting his publicly-held views on convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

The case was filed with the US District Court in Massachusetts on Monday by Lawrence Lessig – a policy activist and founder of the Creative Commons project – who says the Times used a “clickbait” headline to misinform readers in an article published in September, which led him to be unfairly “associated with the notoriety surrounding the Epstein scandal.”

The paper’s actions “are part of a growing journalistic culture of clickbaiting: the use of a shocking headline... to entice readers to click on a particular article, irrespective of the truth of the headline,” Lessig’s lawsuit reads.

[The Times is] fully aware that many, if not most, readers never read past the clickbait and that their takeaway concerning the target of the headline is limited to what they read in the headline.

The story in question is centered on an essay Lessig wrote in defense of Joi Ito, the former director of MIT’s Media Lab, who resigned in disgrace after it was discovered he had accepted, and then covered up, donations to MIT from Jeffrey Epstein. Lessig’s essay made the case that MIT had the right to keep its donors private, and argued that while Ito made many mistakes, he nonetheless tried to “to determine whether Epstein remained an abuser.”

In covering the essay, however, the Times headlined its story: “A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret,” adding in its first paragraph that Lessig was defending “soliciting donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.”

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The story alleges “the exact opposite of what Lessig had written,” and was printed even after he brought his concerns to the newspaper pre-publication, the lawsuit says.

“My essay said – repeatedly – that such soliciting was a 'mistake,'” Lessig wrote in a blog post on Monday discussing the suit, adding “I did not defend taking money from Epstein. I didn’t say it was ok to take money from Epstein ‘if in secret.’”

A spokesperson for the Times said the newspaper will “defend against the claim vigorously” in a statement to the Hill, adding senior editors reviewed Lessig’s complaints and were “satisfied that the story accurately reflected his statements.”

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