Paper’s Lawsuit Against ‘AJR’ Reporter Draws Criticism

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By: Joe Strupp

A lawsuit filed by publishers of the Santa Barbara News-Press claiming that an American Journalism Review writer defamed the newspaper’s owners in a recent article has drawn harsh criticism from newspaper industry leaders, who said such an approach is counter to journalistic practices.

“I am surprised that any publisher would do this,” said Gene Roberts, the legendary former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and part-time instructor at the University of Maryland, where AJR is published. “It’s pretty clear that there is an owner there with no sense and no respect for newspaper traditions and for the First Amendment.”

Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, agreed. “It is outrageous,” he said. “It is especially a betrayal of the principles that most journalists understand for a libel suit of this kind to be filed. It is apparently a grudge.”

Some observers noted that it was unusual for the newspaper to target the writer of the story and not the publication. “It is colossally odd,” said Charles Tobin, former in-house counsel for Gannett and currently a media lawyer in Washington, D.C. “She is really trying to chill the journalist personally. It is atypical to go after the journalist alone — they don’t have deep pockets.”

Susan Goldberg, executive editor of the San Jose Mercury News, called the lawsuit “pretty ridiculous….It has been very, very sad to see the destruction of this newspaper,” she said. “The community is being ill-served by this.”

The article, in the December/January issue of AJR, was written by Susan Paterno, director of the journalism program at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. She did not immediately return a call seeking comment. The article recounts events at the troubled newspaper just before and after a group of editors resigned in protest last July, claiming owner Wendy McCaw had meddled in newsroom decisions.

Since the initial resignations, some 30 staffers have quit, while the remaining newsroom employees voted to be represented by a division of the Teamsters. Several disputes over workplace rules and employee actions have arisen between management and the newsroom, while a handful of community leaders have criticized the paper.

The lawsuit pursued by Ampersand Publishing LLC contends that the article is “nothing but a biased, false and misleading diatribe….Clearly neither accuracy nor objectivity was high on Defendant’s list of priorities. The result is a one-sided article that is false and defamatory of Plaintifff and its publication.”

The 17-page complaint recounts major, and some minor, episodes, challenging facts and motivation, right down to whether McCaw’s boyfriend has ever referred to himself as a “Baron.” It charges that AJR “purports to be an academic journal evaluating news reporting by others on an objective basis. Despite this lofty pretension, nothing could be further from the truth in this instance.”

Agnes Huff, a spokeswoman for the paper, had no initial comment on the criticism of the lawsuit. But she claimed the newspaper’s owners were not given a chance to respond to many of the elements of the article before it was published. Huff said the newspaper declined to grant interviews with any of its top executives, but agreed to respond to written questions if they were submitted.

“I had a phone conversation with [Paterno] and said that if she submitted questions, we would respond,” Huff said. “Their attitude was ‘that’s not the way we do it’.”

AJR Editor Rem Reider did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday. But he told the Los Angeles Times that “The News-Press had ample opportunity to respond to [Paterno’s questions], and they refused.”

Meanwhile, other industry observers continued to slam the News-Press for what they contend was an improper approach to handling such a grievence.

“Clearly she has become very embattled and very defensive about criticism,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, referring to McCaw. “It is the downside of having someone in there who is strong-willed and doesn’t know too much about the traditions of the business.”

Clint Brewer, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, offered a similar view. “I think newspapers should allow criticism and comment on their work,” he said. “We certainly try to hold public officials accountable and others in our respective communities. I don’t think media organizations are above that same kind of scrutiny and fair comment.”

The Ampersand complaint states, “As with all newspapers, its reputation for honesty and fairness in the reporting of news is an essential asset in its success. To characterize this or any newspaper as being driven by a personal agenda of its owner disparages the Plaintiff and the product it sells, drives away subscribers, readers and advertisers, and makes recruitment of personnel difficult if not impossible.”

It provides new details on McCaw’s conflicts with former editor Jerry Roberts, and the allegedly “overblown” handling of the drunk-driving arrest of Travis K. Armstrong, the editorial page editor. The complaint charges, amid much else, that Armstrong “was seen by Mr. Roberts as a rival for influence in the paper.” It asserts that McCaw “had little involvement with any news gathering or content except for issues that arose out of Mr. Roberts’ incompetence….”
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Earlier story today: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=1003523168

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