Sunday afternoon history lesson
The most famous case of this is the David Irving trial. This trial took place in 2000 in response to David Irving's lawsuit against historian Deborah Lipstadt for her characterization of him as a Holocaust denier in her 1993 book Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory. Lipstadt's characterization was based on copious evidence, including statements by Irving such as "more women died on the back seat of Edward Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick than ever died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz," among others. In response, David Irving sued Dr. Lipstadt and her British publisher, Penguin Books, for libel in a trial that made headlines around the world. The reason Irving chose to sue Professor Lipstadt in Britain is because British libel laws are among the most lenient in the world for plaintiffs, forcing the defendant accused of libel to prove that what he or she wrote is true, rather than, as is the case in the U.S. (for example), putting the burden of proof on the plaintiff to prove that what was written was false or written with a "reckless disregard for what is true."
Fortunately, Professor Lipstadt prevailed, dealing a crushing legal and moral blow to the Holocaust denier David Irving. (Unfortunately, however, despite the judgment against him for court costs, somehow David Irving manages to travel around the world giving talks and avoid paying the judgment.) At least, however, forever after now, the label of "Holocaust denier" will follow Irving, based on a verdict by a British court.
The reason this whole issue has come up again is twofold. First, Professor Lipstadt is finally getting to tell her side of the story. She has written a book entitled History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving. I haven't yet had the opportunity to read it, but I'm definitely going to order it from Amazon.com. The excerpts I've read from it, plus having read Professor Lipstadt's previous work, lead me to predict that it will be a detailed account of how Holocaust deniers will try to use to silence their critics, all the while claiming the mantle of free speech martyrs for themselves. Second, recently C-Span's Book TV made a very bad mistake, the same sort of mistake news organizations make when covering evolution. Book TV wanted to do a segment on Lipstadt's book. However, in order to provide "balance," they wanted to invite David Irving to speak as well. (Does this sound familiar to those of you who are involved in debunking creationism?) Professor Lipstadt's pleas that including a blatant Holocaust denier like David Irving would hurt C-Span's credibility fell on deaf ears, leading her to withdraw from the show.
Lipstadt had a ready response and Amy Roach, the C-Span producer handling the show: “Would you put on someone who says slavery did not happen?” “No,” Roach assured Lipstadt. Then why a Holocaust denier, Lipstadt asked. “Oh,” she said quite breezily, “He’s not going to talk about Holocaust denial. He’s going to talk about the trial.” Given that the trial was entirely about Holocaust denial and whether Lipstadt was correct in characterizing Irving as a Holocaust denier in her book, this quite understandably struck Professor Lipstadt as "wacko."
It's depressingly the same, whether the issue is pseudoscience (creationism being the prime example), pseudohistory (Holocaust denial being the prime example), paranormal phenomenon, or quack medicine. The media consistently confuse "balance" with letting the unsupported crank appear on the air or in print as an equal to the true expert. This puts the true expert in a bind. If, she doesn't go on the air with the crank, then the crank will get time to spout his crankery without rebuttal or debunking. On the other hand, if she does go on the air with the crank, she risks giving him credibility as an "alternative opinion." I don't know what I would have decided if I were Lipstadt, but the very fact that she had to make the choice shows how "balance" isn't really balance at all.