by Karen Winner
The media has often been accused of being a willing propaganda tool to manipulate public opinion. But now, President Trump’s systematic denigration of the American media has made the media itself the victim of the smear. It is shocking to witness, but perhaps the media’s victimization will create more self-reflection and raise awareness to a vexing problem taking place in state divorce courts day in and day out, almost always under public radar: When innocent spouses are subjected to slander and libel, for the other side to gain the advantage. Dishonest spouse! Lying spouse! Sometimes, rather than defamation or libel, crude insults suffice in order for one side to gain advantage. By example, when New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani was divorcing his second wife, Donna Hanover, Guiliani announced his plans for separation from Hanover to the press, without telling her first. Not too long afterward, his celebrity divorce lawyer, Raoul Felder, told the newspapers that Hanover was “howling like a stuck pig.” Felder’s statement in the press, vulgarity aside, was a deliberately planned tactic to humiliate her so she would capitulate more easily in court.
Spousal and domestic violence victims are libeled in court so the other side can gain the upper hand. When a spouse’s credibility is deliberately undermined in court, this translates to the judge not believing her (or sometimes him). The libel causes the judge to side with the libeler. This type of court abuse results in the most egregious miscarriages of justice: eviction from the marital home; removal of children from a good parent; the loss of one’s dignity and reputation, because the lies are memorialized in court documents, which become the “official” record.
Any amoral lawyer will tell you, it is relatively easy to destroy the opposing spouse’s credibility with the judge in order to gain a tactical advantage. There are absolutely no legal consequences for lawyers who resort to the cruel defamation and libel of spouses trapped in the system: lawyers enjoy immunity from slander and libel laws because anything they say in a court paper is “privileged.” If a party (or the party’s agent — their lawyer) makes a statement in court or in court papers, no matter how damaging or false, the libeler is protected from libel and defamation suits because the courts have a policy of wanting people to be able to raise claims honestly without the fear of being sued for defamation. However, this protection to be able to say the truth without risk of being sued, has been exploited, on behalf of the abusers and their manipulators.
Interestingly, President Trump’s personal trainer in the art of discrediting was none other than attorney Roy Cohn, who practiced divorce law in New York before being disbarred in 1986. An article in the Washington Post stated what Trump learned from his mentor: “Roy Cohn. . . knew how to instill fear through a simple formula: attack, counterattack and never apologize.”
As some might recall, Roy Cohn initially gained notoriety as the counsel for red-scare-freak Senator Joseph McCarthy. Together, they ruined many, many innocent lives. Later, as a divorce lawyer in New York, Cohn relied on ruthless smear tactics, and no doubt taught other divorce lawyers how to use them too in order to win for his clients. There were reportedly more than 90 complaints against Cohn before he was disbarred.
When Cohn was finally disbarred he used the same character assassination tactics against his victims who had complained against him. The Washington Post reported: “Cohn called his accusers ‘left-wingers,’ ‘deadbeats’ and ‘a bunch of yo-yos just out to smear me up.’ The disbarment action, he said, was ‘a broad ideological question . . . . What McCarthy was accused of practicing is actually being practiced against me.’
Sound familiar? The victimizer as victim.
Libeled divorcing spouses can teach the press that the denigration that takes place in court is not about bias, just as Trump’s denigrating of the press is not about Trump’s personal dislike of them. This denigration through slander and libel is a tactic, plain and simple. But does the media actually comprehend this tactic as a premeditated plan? It is designed to confuse the American people, so that they won’t know what to believe.
The defamed media might benefit from speaking to some of the libeled divorce victims in the courts because they have experienced what the press is only now realizing, the absolute shock of realizing that legitimate government function can be waylaid and the truth sidelined by agendas of the powerful few, through calculated disinformation campaigns and subterfuge — orchestrated through government channels.
There has been no attempt by court officials in the state courts to reign in the libeling of clients. Will there be powers in place to hold the Trump administration accountable?
Karen Winner is an attorney in private practice in New York, author of Divorced From Justice: The Abuse of Women and Children by Divorce Lawyers and Judges (HarperCollins, 1996) and adjunct lecturer at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, teaching “Financial Fraud in Divorce” and Business Law. She is working on a new book on The Marriage Contract.