No Joke: $1 Million Libel Award For Printed Prank p.8

By: Joe Nicholson

After reporters testify about writing distasteful jokes in sports stories,
jury penalizes paper for printing obscene fake quote naming real people

A Thrice-weekly Gannett newspaper in Gallatin, Tenn., lost a $950,000 libel verdict in April after testimony about repeated incidents in which reporters typed jokes into sports stories ? and assumed an editor would delete them.
A 12-member jury in Gallatin, 25 miles northeast of Nashville, rejected the News-Examiner’s contention that an isolated error resulted in publication of a fictitious quote that “joked” about Garrett Dixon Jr., a 17-year-old high school soccer player, claiming he engaged in sodomy with male donkeys and expressed interest in sex with tall, redheaded men.
After an eight-day trial, Dixon was awarded $800,000, including $300,000 in punitive damages, and his Gallatin High School soccer coach, Rufus Lassiter, to whom the newspaper falsely attributed the quote, won $150,000.
Publisher Bob Atkins and editor Steve Rogers testified that it was against their policy and practice for reporters to insert, even temporarily, jokes or fake quotes into stories.
But parts of their testimony were disputed by a former part-time correspondent and the reporter who wrote the disputed fake quote. They described a number of occasions when reporters inserted jokes into stories or story slugs.
The Tennessean, another Gannett paper, summarized the testimony of the two former reporters, saying they recalled vulgar or obscene language was “often” typed into stories.
However, executives at the News-Examiner, circulation about 12,000, dispute the accuracy of the reporting of their sister publication and say one of the former journalists backed away from broad accusations he made before the trial. They say the two testified about no more than a few incidents.
Nick DeLeonibus, who was fired as a reporter for faking the donkey sodomy quote on Feb. 21, 1997, testified it was the third joke he had inserted into a sports story; an editor caught and deleted the first two. A newspaper official insisted that DeLeonibus was then warned to knock it off.
As long as two years before the quote that spurred the lawsuit, former correspondent Jason Boyd said he used jokes as slugs six or seven times. Boyd, a stringer who wrote 140 stories for the newspaper, once used a story title about a team getting an “ass kicking.” He said the sports editor at the time, Cameron Collins, knew about the practice. Subsequently, Collins was promoted to his current position as news editor. He declined comment.
Boyd’s testimony was crucial “because he contradicted the newspaper’s assertion that this was purely an accident,” according to Dulin Kelly, attorney for plaintiff Dixon. “We proved there were other cases where they typed jokes into the computer, but deleted them before they were published.” Circuit Court Judge Thomas Goodall referred to the incidents as “horseplay” and allowed Dixon’s attorneys to attempt to establish a pattern of conduct.
DeLeonibus testified that he was attempting to amuse and shock sports editor Kris Freeman, whom a colleague described as a somber-minded Christian. The offending quote, attributed to the coach, read: “Dixon sucks donkey dicks, and doesn’t wipe the shit off before practice. We like to keep him at the sweeper position so his sperm breath will stop people from penetrating to the goal. Speaking of penetrating, he prefers tall, redheaded guys. Told me to tell Kris he said hello.”
Freeman, who happens to be tall and redheaded, testified he never saw the quote because he left part of the story unedited, according to plaintiff attorney Kelly and two staff members. Reading the entire article, he insisted, would have forced him to miss deadline.
Freeman was suspended after the incident. According to a staffer, management felt his biggest mistake was neither inadequate supervision of DeLeonibus nor failing to read the entire story. It was his failure to do a spell-check, which would have flagged the words “dicks” and “shit.”
After the incident, the words “ass” and “asses” were added to the spell-check’s vocabulary so it could be counted on to catch expressions like Boyd’s use of “ass kicking.”
Freeman, who has since been promoted to news editor of Gannett’s nearby Hendersonville Star News, refused to comment for this story.
Three days after the phony quote appeared, the News-Examiner printed a front-page apology in its next edition. It also printed DeLeonibus’ apology as a letter to the editor.
Nonetheless, the jury awarded Dixon $500,000 in compensatory damages and $300,000 in punitive damages. Lassiter only won compensatory damages.
The story caused Dixon emotional stress, he testified, and led him to see a psychiatrist. The teenager dropped out of one class because of students’ comments and discovered the made-up quote was widely known during soccer matches in other towns when opposing players asked, “Which one is donkey Dixon?”
Adding to the newspaper’s woes, Dixon turned out to have a sterling character, a standout 3.8 grade average and a history of activity in his Baptist congregation. His school’s girls club voted him “Gentleman of the Year,” and the senior class named him “Mr. Personality.” He is now at the University of Tennessee.
On the stand, Dixon testified, “I knew people wouldn’t think it was true, but they must have thought I had done something to deserve the article being written.”
DeLeonibus explained he invented the ugly quote only for laughs, not out of dislike for Dixon, whom he had taught to play drums and whose older sister he had dated. According to a staff source, DeLeonibus’ misguided prank was, in part, his way of showing his editor that he could write negatively about his friend.
As punishment, publisher Bob Atkins placed his two top editors, Rogers and Collins, on probation for 90 days.
When Atkins was asked for comment, the publisher asked to have an advance copy of this story faxed to him. When he was told E&P did not provide advance copies, he declined comment.
Then, last November, 10 months after the quote appeared, Rogers was suspended without pay for four days for mistaken use of a byline.
A byline mix-up might seem minor, but this error had unusual wrinkles. The story concerned the appointment of a state director for a child advocacy unit and noted the new director, Rosemary Bates, was married to the newspaper’s editor, Steve Rogers.
It was written, it turned out, on a newsroom computer by Bates herself, edited by her husband and carried the byline of staff reporter Claudia Edwards, who knew nothing about it until she spotted her byline in print.
Publisher Atkins learned of the wayward byline when he read a column by Henry Walker, a press critic with the alternative Nashville Scene.
Rogers, a Yale graduate who interrupted his journalism career for several years to serve as chief of staff of a Congressman’s office in Washington, agreed to an interview but limited discussion to a vigorous defense of his journalistic accomplishments and the propriety of letting his wife report her own promotion. “The fact that she wrote it at the newspaper is absolutely no different than if she mailed it to me,” said Rogers. “Tell me,” he demanded angrily, “the difference in her sitting there at the computer! What is the conflict? A conflict of interest is when you are doing something that is wrong. This isn’t wrong. I can’t even see the perception of a conflict of interest here. There is a whole lot of stuff being made out of nothing just because she’s my wife.”
Rogers insisted anyone in his community could walk into his newsroom and write a story. A resident with a news release, he said, does just that about once every three weeks.
In addition to running a staff of eight reporters, Rogers doubles as an editorial writer, and he boasted that he lashed out four times last year at his wife ? who also serves on the local planning board ? for positions she was advocating.
Rogers conceded the story should not have had a byline, and nobody has determined how Edwards’ name got there.
The News-Examiner has won more than 70 local and national awards during his 11-year tenure, Rogers said.
Dixon’s lawyer Kelly used the byline incident to reinforce his argument about a continuing pattern of newsroom irregularities.
Also damaging the newspaper’s case were its pay scales. The sports editor and reporter received $7.30 and $6.60 an hour, respectively, not much above the federal minimum wage, said attorney William Moore, who represented coach Lassiter. “You have to hire good people to have a good product,” said Moore, who called the newspaper’s journalism “really no more than filler for the advertising.” Another damaging factor, according to Dixon’s attorney Kelly, was a deposition by sports editor Freeman, who conceded one reporter inserted a “hick joke” to refer to nearby Westmoreland, which has 2,500 residents.
When Freeman was called to testify, it was widely known he faced a jury with three members from the so-called “hick” community. Freeman testified he had been mistaken in his earlier recollection about the use of the slur “hick,” said Kelly and one of Freeman’s colleagues. The reference to Westmoreland, he explained, had been a milder comment that merely expressed bemusement at the school coach’s unusually pronounced drawl.
The newspaper had not decided whether to appeal, according to defense lawyers Dick Batson, who represented the News-Examiner, and William Willis, Gannett’s local attorney. Willis declined to answer questions about libel insurance coverage.
At Gannett’s Arlington, Va., headquarters, vice president and senior legal counsel Barbara Wall said, “It was a mistake, and the newspaper has apologized, and they did everything they could to correct the situation.” For a libel case to revolve around words never intended for publication was “fairly unusual,” said Wall. An appeal, she added, might contest the legality of holding a parent corporation liable, adding, “We think that was an incorrect ruling by the trial court.
“Our research shows that the parent is not usually responsible for editorial content of publications published by subsidiaries,” said Wall, “particularly where the editorial decisions are made at the local level, which is the case within Gannett.”
Batson, the News-Examiner’s lawyer, wouldn’t say whether editorial policy has changed because of the suit. “I don’t know if you can ever assure that mistakes won’t be made by human beings,” Batson said. “I’m not going to comment on what has been done or what is planned to be done in terms of post-remedial measures, if anything.”
Gannett, which owns the newspaper through a subsidiary within a subsidiary, maintained during the trial that it was not responsible for what the newspaper did.
One of the newspaper’s most damaging faults in the jury’s eyes, according to Dixon’s lawyer Kelly, was its failure to forewarn the teenager before he arrived at school. Overnight editors had discovered the quote at 5:20 a.m. and quickly telephoned Rogers. “Are all the papers gone?” he demanded. They were: An independent contractor had trucked them to vending machines and convenience stores, and carriers were finishing their routes. At the News- Examiner office, staffers used scissors to cut DeLeonibus’ story out of editions available on the office’s front desk, but officials disagreed over whether an effort was made to retrieve distributed newspapers.
An overnight staffer telephoned the coach, but Kelly said the News-Examiner never explained in court why the teenager, whose father had a listed telephone number, wasn’t called.
News-Examiner officials said in interviews they couldn’t find the first name of the teenager, who was universally known by his nickname Bubba.
Later in the morning, publisher Atkins drove to a store owned by the family of Dixon’s mother and apologized to her. But it was too late to head off her son’s trauma at school.
“He was devastated,” said attorney Kelly. “The principal’s testimony was that he had never seen so many newspapers in the high school before that day or since.”

?(Steve Rogers, editor of the Gallatin, Tenn., News-Examiner, being deposed in the libel suit by a student athlete and coach. A jury found the paper liable for a phony, obscene passage inserted as a joke into a sports story and never read by editors before being printed and delivered to readers. Rogers is a Yale graduate and former chief of staff for a U.S. Congressman.) [Photo & Caption]

?(Bob Atkins, publisher of the News-Examiner and CEO of its parent company, Middle Tennessee Publishing Co., seen in a videotape of his deposition in the libel suit. The case focused on operations of the 12,000-circulation Gannett Co. triweekly and how it allowed an obscene and defamatory passage to be printed and distributed. ) [ Photo & Caption]

?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher May 2, 1998) [Caption]

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