Attack of Reporter Susan Paterno Marks New Low for Journalism Lawsuits
Published in various newspapers across the country yesterday was Associated Press reporter Greg Risling’s story about the lawsuit filed last week in Orange County against Susan Paterno, a writer for the well-respected American Journalism Review. Today, The Indy obtained a copy of that lawsuit, and you can read it here in PDF form.
Paterno wrote the article entitled “Santa Barbara Smackdown,” a touching portrait of the meltdown at the News-Press and probably the most thorough investigation of what happened before, during, and since the crash. The SB Media Blog covered her story here. (Paterno also wrote about the lawsuit against The Indy, and we wrote about that article here.)
In brief, the lawsuit claims that Paterno, 48, a professor at Chapman University and a reporter for AJR for a decade, engaged in libel and “product disparagement.” (Oddly enough, the suit claims that Paterno’s article hurt “Santa Barbara’s residents as well.”) The plaintiff, which is technically Ampersand Publishing and represented by Stanton L. Stein of Santa Monica’s Alschuler Grossman Stein & Kahan firm (the same guy suing The Indy), is seeking damages. Of course, we are not surprised at this legal lob, for it’s just the latest in a seemingly endless string of lawsuits.
What is surprising, however, is that an individual reporter is being attacked. That’s plain stinky for a journalistic institution to even consider, entirely unfair in a country that prides itself on free speech, and clearly a means to inhibit free speech and intimidate other reporters who might be working on the story. It’s likely an attempt to scare off the person who’s supposedly doing a documentary on the News-Press meltdown and anyone else who might be completing pieces, whether on paper, online, on video, or on radio. And we wouldn’t be surprised if there was a book or two in the works, considering the high number of good reporters, writers, and editors who have been fired or resigned from the paper.
Another odd twist is that Paterno’s story explains that she attempted to contact Wendy McCaw and other top level N-P folks to get their side of the story. They declined interviews through their hired PR gal Agnes Huff, as they have the entire time. How can McCaw then legitimately claim that she was mistreated, if she declined involvement in the first place? Additionally, the AP article explains that AJR‘s attorneys vetted the story, which makes it all the more bizarre that McCaw thinks her suit will go anywhere. Doesn’t she know that attorneys often just tell rich people exactly what they want to hear? Remember Wendy, they get paid no matter which way the cookie crumbles.
But perhaps most intriguing is that, for the first time, the general public is given a lengthy look at what could be best termed “Wendy McCaw’s Version of Events.” According to the lawsuit, McCaw’s side of the story is that Jerry Roberts, a highly decorated editor with as strong a track record as anyone in the business, was incompetent and let individual reporters’ biases leak into their stories. The lawsuit goes on to portray McCaw and her cohorts as the face of change in the newsroom, the proud warriors who were bringing back objectivity and ethics to the newsroom.
Really? Then why haven’t a flock of good reporters from L.A., S.F., and N.Y.C. been knocking down the doors? And why does everyone else on the planet seem to see it otherwise? The lawsuit goes on to identify 33 sentences in Paterno’s story that aren’t true, at least according to “Wendy McCaw’s Version of Events.” Most of these are supported with the flat denials, even sentences that Paterno attributed to a source. Check it out, because it makes for some entertaining reading. Oh, and even we can verify at least one of the claims: Agnes Huff is not the “communications manager;” she’s just a PR consultant.
Well, at least we now know why she doesn’t do interviews: Even when her attorneys write her lines, McCaw comes off as silly, ridiculous, and, well, incompetent.
We ask it again: How many of these lawsuits need to be filed until the anti-SLAPP law can be invoked? (By the way, the News-Press back in 1992 wrote an editorial in support of the state’s anti-SLAPP laws. What’s their stance on the statutes now?) Aren’t these lawsuits clearly means of restricting free speech?