Getting Personal In St. Louis p.11

By: MARK FITZGERALD Did the editor threaten a libel suit?
DID ST. LOUIS Post-Dispatch editor Cole C. Campbell threaten libel action in a letter to the St. Louis Journalism Review just as it was about to publish a profile of the daily's editorial page editor?
"If you publish any statements alleging that [editorial page editor Christine A. Bertelson's] appointment was made for personal reasons, that will be libelous on its face ? to her and to me," wrote Campbell, who went on to give a brief description of libel law and add that his legal understanding had been "confirmed . . . in connection with this inquiry with counsel for the Post-Dispatch."
To its recipient, Ed Bishop, editor and general manager of the St. Louis Journalism Review, the letter was an out-and-out libel threat.
"My reaction was anger, and, 'Hey, this guy can't intimidate and bully us,'" Bishop said. "I don't think anything we did was libelous ? and I don't think Cole really believed it was going to be libelous. The thing that bothered me the most is the idea that he thought he could control the flow of information."
Nonsense, Campbell responds. No threat was intended, he said. The letter was simply an "admonition" that SJR get its facts straight.
"It has never been my intention to sue anybody," Campbell said. "It is not my intention to threaten anybody. My intention has always been to speak to the issue of journalism standards.
"It wasn't a threat, it was a nudge, a nudge to them to get somebody with competence in the area of press standards and laws to read [the article] carefully before they published it," Campbell added.
Campbell's letter, dated Jan. 21, was sent by courier to SJR as a freelance writer, Ellen Harris, was preparing a profile of Christine A. Bertelson, who last March was promoted to editorial page editor. Bertelson, 48, had worked as a reporter at the Post-Dispatch from 1972-75 and returned in 1986, becoming a columnist in 1993. In addition to chronicling her efforts to liven up the editorial page with a new op-ed comic strip, reorganization of editorial writers and a nationwide search for a new editorial cartoonist, the profile leaned heavily on not-for-attribution comments about Bertelson's personal and working style.
"I had reason to believe they didn't have a good mastery of how she had taken what was a moribund . . . editorial page and turned it around. I
didn't want them to de-legitimize someone who is doing a bang-up job as editorial page editor," Campbell said.
Campbell declined to characterize the story as it appeared, except to say, "It confirmed my impulse to send the letter."
The Bertelson profile appeared in SJR's February issue ? and so did Campbell's letter, despite being labeled "Personal And Confidential" at the top and its last sentence: "This letter is for your information and not for publication or any other dissemination."
Bishop said he printed the letter ? side by side with his own response ? because copies of it began to turn up not only in the newsroom, but in St. Louis at large.
"I got numerous calls from people at the Post-Dispatch saying I should publish it," said Bishop, who made the decision after much thought, "since confidentiality no longer applied."
"That just shows me that SJR does not understand copyright law," Campbell said. "That letter is my property. They had no right to publish it under the law, and they had no moral right either." Campbell said the text of the letter had been in his own queue ? a "public" queue accessible to the newsroom ? in the newspaper's front-end system. "It's unfair to say it was 'hacked,' but it's like somebody going into my desk to get it," Campbell said.
Campbell said he has no "intention" of taking legal action over the alleged copyright violation.
"My intention is the same, to speak to journalism standards," he said.
The most notable recent copyright ruling concerning letters was in a case brought by the reclusive author J.D. Salinger, who sued to stop publication of letters written to friends, said media lawyer Joseph Thornton of the Springfield, Ill., firm of Craven and Thornton.
"I think for a newspaper editor to argue that would be just a bit unusual," Thornton said. "It was naive at best for an editor to send a letter like that and realistically expect it would not be published."
?(Any suggestion that St. Louis Post-Dispatch editor Cole Campbell (right) promoted Christine Bertelson (left) to editorial page editor for
personal ? rather than professional ? reasons is libelous, Campbell warned the St. Louis Journalism Review.) [Caption & Photo]
?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com)
?(copyright: February 21, 1998)


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