CNN's Jim Acosta can't sue Sarah Huckabee Sanders for defamation, despite doctored video, false accusation

A video analysis of video posted by the White House
(Image credit: Screenshot/YouTube/AP)

On Wednesday, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House had revoked the press pass of CNN's Jim Acosta, accusing him of "placing his hands on a young woman" intern who tried to take his microphone during a contentions back-and-forth earlier in the day. That night, Sanders affirmed the decision to bar Acosta, posted a video of the incident, and said "we will not tolerate the inappropriate behavior clearly documented in this video."

The thing is, Acosta did not accost the intern, and the video Sanders posted to defend the White House decision was pretty clearly doctored. If anything, it's the intern who was inappropriately aggressive. "Nevertheless, Acosta's press pass was revoked, underscoring the false implication that Acosta had assaulted a defenseless staffer," Variety notes. "So can Acosta sue for defamation? The answer is no. As a federal official, Sanders is immune from defamation claims that arise from her professional duties under the Federal Tort Claims Act," a 1940s law that Congress amended in 1988 to shield federal officials.

Still, The Associated Press says, "while the origin of the manipulated video is unclear, its distribution marked a new low for an administration that has been criticized for its willingness to mislead." AP posted an exhaustive analysis of the apparent video manipulation by independent video producer Abba Shapiro.

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Pulling a journalist's White House pass is rare and the misconduct bar is high. Media organizations criticized Sanders and called for Acosta's pass to be reinstated. "As visual journalists, we know that manipulating images is manipulating truth," said Whitney Shefte, president of the the White House News Photographers Association. "It's deceptive, dangerous, and unethical."

"The irony of this White House video involving Jim Acosta is that if it is found to be doctored, it will show the administration to be doing what it accuses the news media of doing — engaging in fake information," noted Washington & Lee journalism ethics professor Aly Colon.

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