I liked William F. Buckley Jr, and it would be safe to say he is grimacing someplace over this news. I always like Buckley for his slightly elitist charm and world-class intelligence.
Climate scientist Michael Mann is suing National Review and Mark Steyn, one of its leading writers, for defamation. It’s a charge that’s notoriously hard to prove, which is no doubt why the magazine initially refused to apologize for an item on its blog in which Steyn accused Mann of fraud. Steyn also quoted a line by another conservative writer (Rand Simberg) that called Mann “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data.” (Simberg and the free market think tank for which he works, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, are also named in the suit.)
The lawsuit has not been going well for the magazine. In July, Judge Natalia Combs Greene rejected a motion to dismiss the suit. The defendants appealed, and last week D.C. Superior Court Judge Frederick Weisberg rejected the motion again, opening the door for the discovery phase of the lawsuit to begin.
That’s not all. On Christmas Eve, Steyn (who regularly guest hosts Rush Limbaugh’s radio show) wrote a blog post in which he excoriated Greene, accusing her of incompetence, stupidity, and obtuseness. As a result of this outburst, the law firm that had been representing National Review and Steyn (Steptoe & Johnson) has dropped Steyn as a client and reportedly has plans to withdraw as counsel for the magazine as well. (Now representing himself in the lawsuit, non-lawyer Steyn continues on the attack here and here.)
[Update: National Review publisher Jack Fowler says that it was Mark Steyn who initiated the break with the law firm of Steptoe & Johnson, not the other way around.]
Now, the lawsuit may well be dismissed down the road. But the longer it continues, the more likely it becomes that Mann will eventually prevail, either by forcing an expensive settlement or by prevailing in court and winning a substantial penalty from the defendants.
It’s doubtful that National Review could survive either outcome. Small magazines often lose money and only rarely manage to break even. They certainly don’t have substantial legal budgets, let alone cash to cover an expensive payout. Indeed, in 2005, Buckley said the magazine had lost $25 million over 50 years.