Seth Dillon, CEO of the wildly popular Babylon Bee satire site, announced on Twitter Thursday that the company’s lawyers have sent a letter to the New York Times accusing the paper of defamation and demanding the retraction of an article calling the Bee a “far-right misinformation site” that “sometimes trafficked in misinformation under the guise of satire.”
The New York Times article in question, published in March, describes how Facebook content moderators struggle to know how to handle satire. Mike Isaac, who penned the piece, apparently consulted his thesaurus and found some nifty pejoratives to describe the Bee.
Dillon pushed back against the description in a Twitter thread on March 21:
Here's the section of the article where they quote Emerson T. Brooking making this claim. Booking is described as "a resident fellow for the Atlantic Council who studies digital platforms." pic.twitter.com/GsDOayh7uJ
— Seth Dillon (@SethDillon) March 21, 2021
Adam Ford, founder of the Babylon Bee, called out Isaac personally:
— Adam Ford (@Adam4d) March 22, 2021
Dillon pointed out that “No other examples of far-right misinformation sites are offered. The Babylon Bee is the only one cited in this piece.”
“Notably, the words ‘trafficked in misinformation’ are hyperlinked, presumably a supportive source,” Dillon continued. “But the link they point to is another NY Times piece that actually refutes—rather than supports—the claim being made here by accurately describing us as a legitimate satire site.”
“I’m pretty sure there’s a legal term for what’s happening here,” Dillon declared. “Incredibly, the NY Times is publishing deceptive disinformation for the purpose of leading people to falsely believe that we are a source of it.”
Upon receipt of the demand letter, the Times added an update to the original article, which Ford described (rather generously, if you ask me) as “piping hot liquid garbage” at Not the Bee.
Isaac, apparently quite proud of himself, tweeted at both Dillon and Ford, announcing the “update.”
@Adam4d Hey Seth and Adam,
Flagging you both to note that the piece has been updated to reference the past run-ins with Snopes and Facebook.
— rat king (@MikeIsaac) March 22, 2021
Translation, courtesy of Ford:
"Hey Seth and Adam,
Flagging you both to note that the piece has been updated to scrub my most egregious defamatory statement while still passively insinuating under the guise of journalism that The Babylon Bee is misinformation instead of satire."
So weak. https://t.co/y2eQyJMc9E
— Adam Ford (@Adam4d) March 22, 2021
“The update is still damning of us, especially given its context in the paragraph and article at large, and still precisely worded to cast doubt on the Bee’s legitimacy as a satire outlet,” said Ford. “What a joke.”
“Rat king [Isaac’s apt Twitter handle] is CLEARLY implying that the Bee is one of the aforementioned right-wing misinformation sites — and being that the Bee is the only example given of said sites, perhaps he’s implying that we’re the most prominent offender.” Ford continued:
Look where the Bee is mentioned in the article. It’s right after this sentence: “In 2019 and 2020, Facebook often dealt with far-right misinformation sites that used ‘satire’ claims to protect their presence on the platform.”
“Oh, what far-right misinformation sites?” anyone who reads the article will ask themselves.
The very next sentence lobs a shot at the Bee.
Ford pointed out that instead of simply removing the defamatory descriptors, Isaac introduced another topic to cast aspersions on the Bee — an alleged “feud” with the fact-checkers at Snopes. But the article Isaac linked to is one that labels a Bee article as “Satire” rather than “False” and includes a disclaimer assuring readers that Snopes did not intend to “impute deceptive intent on the part of the Babylon Bee.”
“Mike Isaac the Rat King is a fine representative of the New York Times,” Ford concluded. “Their update is unsatisfactory and we at The Babylon Bee continue to discuss our options.”
Dillon agreed: “The update was no better than the original. We have not, in fact, feuded with Snopes as to whether we publish satire or misinformation. Snopes retracted that insinuation with an editors’ note saying it was never their intent to call our motives into question.”
“It’s therefore misleading and malicious to characterize that incident as a feud, as if Snopes ever openly stood by the claim that we are misinformation and not satire,” he said.
A copy of the demand letter, obtained by PJM, says, “Though this same article was ‘updated’ by Mr. Isaac thereafter, the update remains defamatory because it nevertheless maintains that the Babylon Bee is a ‘far-right misinformation site’ that use[s] ‘satire’ claims to protect their presence on the [Facebook] platform.”
“Both versions of this article constitute defamation by libel, libel per se, and the tortious interference with business and contractual relations,” the letter from Bee attorney Noah Tennyson continued. “As to the original version of your article, to ostensibly support its casted aspersions, it ironically links to another New York Times article from October 11, 2020, which is essentially a profile piece about the Babylon Bee being a legitimate satire website, and it contains no mention of ‘misinformation’ whatsoever.”
The Bee’s lawyer reasoned that the New York Times “obviously knows about the Babylon Bee’s relationship with Facebook and other social media platforms, and it plainly sought to interfere with these relationships by publishing its false statements,” in violation of New York state law. “Whether deserved or not, the New York Times is generally looked to as a reliable source of information, and thus its disseminations of falsehoods in this matter may result in the social media platforms which host the Babylon Bee to question whether they should continue to maintain Babylon Bee accounts as they currently do.”
Accordingly, “any resulting restrictions by these platforms upon Babylon Bee accounts would all but certainly be a direct result of your intentional and tortious publications described herein.”
The letter demands a “full and complete retraction” of all versions of the article. “Failure to do so will result in further damages to the Babylon Bee, which hereby reserves all of its rights to bring a lawsuit in this matter.” [Ca-ching!]
“Govern yourselves accordingly,” Tennyson warned.
“These mischaracterizations from the Times are nothing new,” said Dillon. “Previously, Times reporter Kevin Roose wrote a defamatory piece that claimed we ‘capitalize on confusion’ and that we have a ‘habit of skirting the line between misinformation and satire,’ whatever that means.”
“The Babylon Bee is not a covert disinformation operation disguised as a right-wing satire site, and is in fact trying to do comedy,” he insisted. “For better or worse, the NY Times is considered a ‘reliable source. We cannot stand idly by as they act with malice to misrepresent us in ways that jeopardize our business.”