The Hatfill Settlement

A number of news outlets are now reporting that Steven Hatfill has settled his Privacy Act lawsuit against the Department of Justice and the FBI. Some of the reports have also suggested that our press statement was perhaps a bit more scolding than usual. Reasonable minds can judge for themselves.

STATEMENT ON TODAY’S SETTLEMENT

The settlement announced today closes a very unhappy chapter in this nation’s public life. Our government failed us, not only by failing to catch the anthrax mailers but by seeking to conceal that failure. Our government did this by leaking gossip, speculation, and misinformation to a handful of credulous reporters.

Our journalists also failed us, by putting aside their professional skepticism and shoveling the leaked information all too willingly into publication without questioning the accuracy of the information, the motives of the leakers, or the fairness of the government’s tactics. As an innocent man, and as our fellow citizen, Steven Hatfill deserved far better.

Six years later, the United States government has agreed to pay for some of the damage which the government and the press collaborated in causing. The leakers, their accomplices in the press, and a handful of conspiracy theorists deprived Dr. Hatfill of his professional reputation and the employment he could otherwise have expected. As a result of the media circus they created and sustained, Dr. Hatfill must now carry on his scientific work largely independently. This settlement will help him to do so.

To be clear, this was not a case in which a courageous whistleblower called government malfeasance to the public’s attention. It was instead a case in which the government used the press, violating federal privacy laws in the process. Almost no one in the press recognized this at the time, and an alarming number of journalists refuse to admit it even today. Journalists who genuinely aspire to serve a “watchdog” function by alerting the public to abuses of government power must understand that if they pass this kind of information along, they are allowing themselves to become tools of oppression. The collusive relationship between unethical officials and uncritical reporters, which caused such great damage to Dr. Hatfill’s personal life and professional reputation, must not be treated by journalists as if it were a respectable method of newsgathering.

We can only hope that the individuals and institutions involved are sufficiently chastened by this episode to deter similar destruction of private citizens in the future – and that we will all read anonymously sourced news reports with a great deal more skepticism in the future.

In response to one question I received by e-mail: Yes, this does end the litigation against the government. No, it does not alter my opinion that the reporter’s shield legislation currently being considered by Congress is an outrage. We need to do much, much more to protect privacy and reputation in this country, and whatever laws we pass for those purposes become totally unenforceable if reporters get a license to obstruct justice.

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5 Responses to “The Hatfill Settlement”

  1. No one Says:

    Putting aside that you don’t understand the facts of this case or how a reporter came to be involved in contempt case over it — that you think a civil trial — over little more than money — is enough to trump the first amendment and years of american jurisprudence to the contrary, says a lot.

  2. Mark Grannis Says:

    Welcome, “No one.” I’m going to leave your anonymous comment up because I think it’s such a good example of the kind of “information” that flows so freely when people speak anonymously. If you’d like to test the claim that I don’t understand the facts of the case, come back with your real name.

  3. Timothy Peach Says:

    Congrats on the settlement. Practical outcome, and it does send a message.

    As if the First Amendment gives anyone the right to toss around unsubstantiated tripe without consequences.

    In the Internet Era, anyone can claim to be a “journalist” because “publishing” is just making written thoughts public. We are all freaking journalists.

    The fact that we all have a right to free speech has never been justification for libel.

    I really wish “no one” would come back for a battle. It’s really funny that he doesn’t appear to know who you are vis-a-vis this case. He didn’t even read the post carefully enough to pick up that it was “our statement” and not “the statement”. It’s probably a good indicator of how carefully he’s studied the topic in general.

  4. Shopfloor » Blog Archive » Concerning a Federal Media Shield Says:

    [...] from Hatfill’s attorneys, the statement. It’s pretty fierce, but then, Hatfill was wronged and spent seven years trying to restore [...]

  5. Bill Mitchell Says:

    Great job on the Hatfill settlement. Glad to see someone finally win against these kind of people. I’ve never been able to find an attorney who would stand against my enemies. However, glad to here your busy.


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