By: Joe Strupp
$2.5 Million Libel Verdict Is Disturbing To Some
from this week’s Editor & Publisher magazine:
by Joe Strupp
Journalists commenting about people they cover are a daily part of life in most newsrooms, along with ringing phones, keyboard clatter, and spilled coffee. Nary a day goes by that a writer or editor isn’t spouting an opinion about a local politician, criminal defendant, or other newsmaker.
But after a Maryland jury awarded $2.5 million to a politician who claimed The Capital of Annapolis libeled him – a verdict based primarily on a former reporter’s testimony that an editor had told her the paper “was after” the plaintiff – such newsroom comments may become dangerous, observers said.
“It could prevent newspapers from commenting on political candidates, or endorsing,” said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “I’m a little surprised that it didn’t get thrown out.”
Lawyers for both sides in the suit brought by failed state’s attorney candidate John R. Greiber agreed that the libel verdict, handed down April 14, likely turned on the testimony of Melinda H. Rice, a former Capital reporter who quit in October 1997. During the trial, Rice testified under subpoena that Managing Editor Thomas Marquardt had asked her to follow an untrue tip about Greiber allegedly taking political payoffs and write a story about it. She also testified that a city editor had told her that the paper “was after” Greiber.
Although the story was never written and Rice eventually quit, her testimony about the incident was used to allege that the paper had an ulterior motive in its coverage of Greiber, attorneys said. Evidence that a newspaper maliciously tried to defame a plaintiff is a necessary condition for libel of a public figure.
Greiber’s suit, filed in 1998, focused on a September 1997 editorial by Marquardt that referred to Greiber’s failed 1994 bid for state’s attorney and his relationship with John Gary, then Anne Arundel County executive. The editorial said, among other things, that Greiber was “an unqualified ally to whom Gary continues to feed county legal business.”
Attorney Ray Mullady, who represented The Capital and its owner, Capital Gazette Communications Inc., said the jury misunderstood the facts and allowed Rice’s testimony to sway their opinion. “It was not in conformity with the evidence,” he said. “The verdict had nothing to do with the editorial – the jury seemed to be inflamed by the testimony of this reporter who testified about a separate story on a different subject that was never written.”
Mullady also said the jury should have better distinguished between comments in an editorial and those in a news article. “I don’t think they appreciate the distinction between opinion and fact,” he said.
“It was a verdict colored by passion,” the RCFP’s Dalglish agreed, saying the existence of actual malice was never proven: “Actual malice means knowingly printing something false. Your motive is absolutely irrelevant.”
But Kristin Kremer, Greiber’s attorney, said the editor’s comments in the newsroom showed a bias. “It was reasonable for a jury to conclude that when the editorial ran, the editor had in his mind that our client had been involved in political patronage,” she said. “But he had not.”
Marquardt said he could not comment on specifics of the case because of pending appeals, but described the outcome as “a sign of the times and unfortunate.” Capital Publisher Philip Merrill did not return phone calls, and Executive Editor Edward Casey declined comment.
Joe Strupp (email@example.com) is an associate editor for Editor & Publisher magazine.
Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher.