Published May 4, 2004
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 accountability.
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 legal conditions.