Lawrence Lessig and The New York Times used to get along just fine.
The paper has long covered the Harvard Law School professor’s extensive work on political corruption, including his long-shot presidential run in 2015. Lessig, who tends to attract a left-leaning, activist crowd, has also written for the paper himself.
But now Lessig is suing the Times for alleged defamation, and specifically “clickbait defamation.” In essence, he’s arguing the paper was trying to juice traffic when it published an interview with him about his criticism of the “scapegoating” of former MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito. Ito resigned in September after the New Yorker revealed he and colleagues had taken pains to conceal generous donations from Jeffrey Epstein after his conviction on sex crime charges in 2008.
“This is a case about Defendants’ publication of a sensationalized, false and defamatory ‘clickbait’ internet headline and lede in order to drive readers to their story and web site,” reads the complaint.
Lessig claims the Times wrote that he defended Ito’s acceptance of donations from the convicted pedophile and financier, but asserts that, in fact, he said the opposite and that the paper refused to change its story post-publication.
Lessig said in an interview with The Daily Beast that he wanted the law to account for what he sees as the perils of today’s media consumption habits.
“The law needs to reflect the culture. Given we know that we live in a culture where headlines and ledes travel independently of a story, there’s an obligation to make sure the headlines and ledes are true and not defamatory," he said.
Word of the lawsuit spread Monday thanks in part to a multimedia blitz from Lessig—a new website “clickbaitdefamation.org,” a lengthy Medium blog post, a YouTube video, and a tweet to his 358,700 followers. Longtime admirers might have been surprised to see the political activist, better known for railing against corruption and the concentration of power, attacking the best-known journalistic institution in the United States.
In a statement, the Times indicated it had no intention of backing down.
“When Professor Lessig contacted the Times to complain about the story, senior editors reviewed his complaint and were satisfied that the story accurately reflected his statements,” it read. “We plan to defend against the claim vigorously.”
In addition to the Times, Lessig is suing the story’s author, Nellie Bowles, editor Ellen Pollock, and “Daniel Paquet,” according to a filing in federal court in Massachusetts. The suit later refers to the same defendant as Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times. Lessig clarified to The Daily Beast that “Paquet” does, in fact, refer to Baquet, calling the typo “a deeply embarrassing mistake.” The other individual defendants did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The story in question—“A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret”—was a follow-up about another Lessig opus published on Medium in September: “On Joi and MIT.” In that Medium post, Lessig explained why, though he had known of Ito’s dealings with Epstein since they began, he did not oppose Ito’s actions. He came to believe that was a mistake, he wrote, but went out of his way to express how badly he felt for the former administrator: “MIT is less now that Joi is gone… I continue to stand with Joi.” In an addendum added three days after his original essay was written, he attempted to clarify his position: “it was a mistake to take this money, even if anonymous.”
The essay’s stance—a defense of Ito coupled with criticism of those who take "blood money"—drew intense ire. In the suit, what amount to mean tweets about Lessig are cited repeatedly as part of what the plaintiff suggests is evidence of reputational harm. A Times editor declined to excerpt his forthcoming book as a result of the article, he alleges, and Lessig is suing for damages.
Lessig argued in his accompanying video that the paper failed to capture the complexity of his argument and that the story so misinterpreted his message as to constitute defamation. He said in yet another Medium post that the Times “took truth and rendered it completely false.”
But in emails between the professor and Bowles published in the lawsuit, Lessig appeared to acknowledge that the Times did include the range of his opinions in the story, albeit farther down. His chief concern, he said, was the story’s beginning.
Bowles wrote, “In the interview you explain your position [sic] a ton, unambiguously and clearly. You do not think this donation should be taken at all. That’s there!”
Lessig replied, “It’s true, ‘that’s there.’ But in the lede of your article (which we know, is 90% of what an audience understands), you have been rendered as saying that I am ‘defending soliciting donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.’”
Joshua Benton, head of Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, suggested on Twitter Monday that Lessig’s suit was spurious: “What a weak idea to call this ‘clickbait defamation.’...Stories have had headlines and ledes forever. To call it clickbait is simply to attempt to demean it by association with the internet.” (Lessig argued in an interview that the media business model of selling ads based on the traffic to a website incentivizes sensationalism.)
Lessig isn’t the lone academic to be dinged by the Epstein saga only to return to the public eye this month. Last week, Ito was a co-author on a piece about about “The Case for an Institutionally Owned Knowledge Infrastructure” in the education-focused publication Inside Higher Ed, an article that listed his occupation as a “distinguished researcher at Keio University,” the Japanese college where he received his doctorate. Inside Higher Ed and Keio did not respond to requests for comment about Ito’s affiliation with them prior to publication.
Revelations surrounding Epstein’s donations have rocked the highest echelons of academia and research science in the past year and sparked a nationwide discussion about institutional culpability. It was a conversation in which Lessig was determined to take part. Epstein, for his part, appeared to be trying to launder his reputation by donating to and associating with luminaries and schools across many fields, and MIT placed another tenured professor on leave for allegedly concealing the disgraced financier’s donations to the school from his supervisors.