The New York Times brings Steven D. Levitt's Freakonomics blog on-board as an official NYT feature right at the moment we get to see Levitt's embarrassing "letter of clarification" in settlement of John Lott's defamation case against him!
Will the NYT ever report on this latest story involving their valuable asset? In 2005, the NYT, unlike the Wall Street Journal and The Economist, didn't report on Christopher Foote's and Christopher Goetz's discovery that their columnist's famous abortion-cut-crime theory was based on two errors Levitt had made.
So, probably not. As I wrote in the Washington Times in my review of Lott's anti-Levitt Freedomnomics: "Someone should write Celebrityonomics: Why Being Famous Beats Being Right."
As for defamation lawsuits, the Mahalanobis blog has some interesting reflections:
I have a lot of legal experience recently as a defendant, so in the Levitt vs Lott defamation spat, I found myself sympathetic to the defendant, Levitt. Levitt's admission that he said things to the effect that Lott was manipulating his results, and just plain dumb, I figured was his rightful opinion. Heck, if we are to make it illegal to have bad opinions, we would all be in jail. ... People have to learn to live with the fact that no one but Kim Jong-Il or Fidel Castro get 100% approval ratings. In sum, that someone thinks you are dumb or corrupt is so common it is hardly worth a legal remedy.
I had read the one sentence from Freakonomics that Lott found offensive, and was unmoved, as was the judge. But I just read the email that Levitt wrote to John McCall, where he asserts in a private e-mail that Lott's work published in a volume of the Journal of Law and Economics was a puff piece, bought and paid for by Lott or his puppet masters. As Levitt is a powerful person in economics (Editor of the highly respected Journal of Political Economy), whose opinion is therefore important to other people, with power comes responsibility. He is not a politician, so I think he should be free to say whatever he wants in public, no matter how mean or petty. To the extent he slanders or libels someone in public, its good advertising, because no one gets really mad when someone says 2+2=5, they get mad when you make good points.
But private correspondence is more problematic. If behind the scenes a powerful man is slandering someone, there's no accountability, it generates damages, and basically constitutes a conspiracy. This is especially so in this case because Levitt appears to have acted in bad faith, misstating known facts about things like whether something was refereed, ...
Another reminder that economists, like everyone else, are all too human. I hope Levitt takes this lesson to heart.
Personally, I might favor the law affording people a "one defamation margin of error:" if Levitt had more than once emailed somebody with this kind of thing, it would constitute a pattern. At present, however, all we know is that he did this once. (Another concern about suing over private emails is that a satirical statement not intended seriously might be taken literally, although that doesn't seem to apply here.)
Finally, to add some context, here's a paragraph from an earlier David Glenn article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:
"A participant in the conference told The Chronicle last year that Mr. Levitt's characterization of the issue as not peer-refereed was an exaggeration but not an outrageous untruth. Other participants, however, insisted that the issue was vigorously peer-reviewed. They said they had the impression that their work would have been rejected if they had not dealt with the reviewers' concerns."