The company that publishes the Santa Barbara News-Press sued a reporter over a story in the American Journalism Review, claiming the newspaper was defamed in a “biased, false and misleading diatribe.”
The lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court by Ampersand Publishing LLC accuses Susan Paterno of libel and product disparagement and seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.
Paterno declined to comment Monday but her attorney, Howard King, said the lawsuit was without merit. He said he believes the suit’s intended effect was to frighten other reporters who want to write about the News-Press.
“It’s to let any reporter know that if you exercise your constitutional rights, it will cost you money, time and put them through turmoil,” said King, who noted AJR was not named as a defendant.
The article, which appears in AJR’s December 2006-January 2007 issue under the title of “Santa Barbara Smackdown,” focused on the turmoil at the newspaper following the departure of nearly every top editor and several other employees since July. Paterno talked with former staffers, some of whom accused News-Press owner and publisher Wendy McCaw of meddling in the newsroom.
The lawsuit claims Paterno on numerous occasions omitted facts and made false and misleading statements.
AJR’s article “is nothing but a biased, false and misleading diatribe against plaintiff,” said the lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 12. “Clearly neither accuracy nor objectivity was high on defendant’s list of priorities.”
A message left for Ampersand’s attorney was not immediately returned Monday.
AJR Editor and Senior Vice President Rem Reider told The Associated Press the article was carefully reported and News-Press management had “ample” opportunity to respond to questions but refused.
“The story accurately reflects the feelings and the opinions of many people who worked in that newsroom,” Reider said. “The lawsuit seems to have been filed with the intent of intimidating those interested in what has happened at the paper. And that’s very unfortunate.”
King added the story was vetted by numerous editors as well as an outside law firm.
Paterno’s story chronicles the past six months at the News-Press, from the exodus of newsroom employees to the bitter battle between management and the Teamsters to form a union at the paper.
It also looked at two incidents some former employees believe compromised journalistic ethics killing a story about the drunken-driving sentencing of editorial page editor Travis Armstrong and reprimanding staff for publishing the address where actor Rob Lowe wants to build a mansion.
The lawsuit also portrayed former Editor Jerry Roberts as a loose cannon who was unable to follow direction and couldn’t stop reporters from putting their personal opinions into their stories.
“Mrs. McCaw had little involvement with any news gathering or content except for issues that arose out of Mr. Roberts’ incompetence …,” the lawsuit said.
Newsroom employees voted overwhelmingly in September to join the union, but the paper and employees have been clashing since then over the legitimacy of the union vote.
Paterno, 48, is a professor at Chapman University in Orange County. She has written for AJR for about 10 years. The magazine is published by the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.
The News-Press, founded in 1855, is locally owned and was bought by Ampersand in 2000 from The New York Times Co. It publishes seven days a week and has a daily circulation of about 41,000.
A Los Angeles Times story on Tuesday relates: “Howard King, Paterno’s attorney, characterized the suit as an attempt to intimidate journalists who write critical articles about the paper and its owner, and said he planned to seek its dismissal in January. ‘Unless they revoked the 1st Amendment over the weekend, I don’t think they have much of a chance,’ said the Century City attorney, who said the article was vetted by an outside lawyer before publication. He said the lawsuit was ‘a message to any reporter out there: If you’re thinking of doing a critical story on this newspaper or its owners, you better watch out. We’ll do everything we can to hang you out to dry.’
“McCaw has a history of litigation. Last week, her attorney sent a letter to a Santa Barbara hair salon threatening to ‘take appropriate action’ if the owner did not remove a sign that read ‘McCaw, Obey the Law,’ a show of support for the newspaper employees trying to unionize.
“On Dec. 5, she sent a memo to employees threatening to discipline those who are disloyal or make disparaging comments about the paper or its management. She filed a $500,000 breach-of-contract claim against the paper’s former editor, Jerry Roberts. In addition, she was involved in a protracted battle with the California Coastal Commission over allowing public beach access near her Hope Ranch estate.”
To read the original article in AJR, click here.
Related E&P Story: Paper’s Lawsuit Against ‘AJR’ Reporter Draws Criticism