Jewish World Review May 4, 2004 / 13 Iyar, 5764
A Peddler of Court Gossip May Pay the Piper
Last week, a New York federal judge refused to dismiss a defamation case
that reads like a mix of Dr. Ruth and Dr. Seuss. At its heart is a
controversy over what a procurer of prostitutes in Dubai told a "horse
whisperer" in Germany who told a gossipmonger in New York who told millions
of Americans about former Congress member Gary Condit. Though this might
sound like a game of post office for pundits, the stakes are high for
commentators, the Constitution and for Condit.
The former Central Valley representative has not been idle since he faded
from public view after the scandal involving the disappearance and death of
his onetime intern, Chandra Levy. He was hounded as a murder suspect during
the Levy investigation once his "close relationship" with her became public.
Now he and his wife have sued various media organizations, alleging
defamation. Some have reportedly settled. However, the most interesting case
is the one Condit filed against Dominick Dunne, Vanity Fair correspondent,
talk show "legal expert" and host of Court TV's "Power, Privilege and
Justice." The judge's decision that Condit's suit merited a trial converted
Dunne from a seller of court gossip to its subject.
On shows like "Larry King Live," Dunne is famous for combining breathless
celebrity gossip with breast-beating condemnations of anyone suspected of a
crime. When Levy went missing, Dunne went after Condit with vicious abandon.
After roughly seven months of nonstop commentary with little factual
content, Dunne dropped a bombshell. He proclaimed that he had a source
suggesting that at sex parties at Middle Eastern embassies, Condit griped
that Levy was a "clinger" who "threatened to go public." Dunne explained
that Levy might have been kidnapped by Condit's sex-fiend friends, loaded
onto an airplane on a stretcher and "dropped at sea."
Dunne revealed that his source was a self-described "horse whisperer" who
heard it from "an Arab man" in Dubai who claimed to be a procurer of women
for the embassy parties.
All of this and more is contained in court papers. The horse whisperer is
identified by Condit's lawyers as Monty Roberts, a man with "a long and
notorious history of lying." In commentaries, Dunne mentioned that he could
not vouch for the facts, but he also endorsed the horse whisperer as a
"respectable individual" and someone known the "world over." In a radio
interview with Laura Ingraham, both Ingraham and Dunne stated that the horse
whisperer's account made "beautiful sense."
When Dunne was not peddling the horse whisperer's tale, he was offering an
alternative: "Gary Condit rides with Hells Angels," and the reason Levy
disappeared was "that she'd gotten on the back of a motorcycle" and someone
doing a favor for Condit had spirited her away. When Dunne was interviewed
for an Entertainment Tonight Online article, he pushed the Hells Angel
theory. Dunne "could not reveal any more information," wrote the reporter,
"but noted that he's working with authorities in Washington, D.C."
In response to Condit's lawsuit, however, Dunne is portraying himself as
being far different from the image he cultivates as an international crime
buster. In the court filings, he calls his commentary "musings," "idle
chatter" and "small talk." His appearances on programs like "The Laura
Ingraham Show," he insists, actually diminished the likelihood that people
would take his statements as fact.
The judge didn't buy the no-one-takes-me-seriously defense. He decided Dunne
must answer for his comments in a trial, a notable decision given the high
burden imposed on a public official, such as Condit was, in a defamation
case. To protect free speech, the Supreme Court has prevented public
officials from using the defamation standard that applies to average
citizens. Condit must show that Dunne acted with either actual malice or
reckless disregard of the falsity of his statements. The standard is so high
that the last time a national politician prevailed in a defamation suit was
1969 (Barry Goldwater, in a case of malicious reporting).
Court papers state that Dunne admitted in print that he "felt like creating
some trouble" for Condit in his commentaries. Even if that doesn't prove
actual malice, the judge clearly believed that passing along what a horse
whisperer was allegedly told by a procurer in Dubai forms a basis for
showing reckless disregard of the truth.
The mere fact that Dunne may face a trial (absent a settlement) is an
important step in cleaning up the talk-show scene. Dunne and other
commentators plainly believed that, as a public official, Condit was fair
game for unfair attacks. A trial for Dunne would serve as a warning that the
law may not require decency or even total accuracy but it does demand
Ultimately, Dunne may achieve the one thing that seemed most unlikely in his
career: a positive contribution to the law or media. The race to the bottom
that he has helped to lead will temporarily be postponed due to inclement
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JWR contributorJonathan Turley is a professor of law at George Washington Law School.
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© 2003, Jonathan Turley