AJR Says No to McCaw

AJR‘s Attorneys Refuse Retraction, Make McCaw’s Claims Look Silly

In a sternly yet clear December 27, 2006 letter to Stanton L. Stein, the attorney hired by News-Press owner Wendy McCaw (pictured) to sue newspapers and magazines (including The Santa Barbara Independent), the American Journalism Review‘s attorney flatly refused to run a retraction of the article on the News-Press meltdown written by Susan Paterno. WendyMcCaw.jpg That’s the article that also prompted McCaw to attack Paterno herself with a lawsuit, marking perhaps the first time that a newspaper publisher ever used a court of law to individually threaten a writer. (See Paterno’s “Santa Barbara Smackdown” here.)

The six-page letter (plus five pages of N-P office memos and emails/letters to Paterno from PR lady Agnes Huff and laywer David Millstein) from D.C. lawyer Charles Tobin of the firm Holland and Knight states that the December 6 retraction demand sent to AJR only revealed two instances of inaccuracy by Paterno: ajr.jpg that Huff was not also called a CEO and that McCaw’s fiancee Arthur von Wiesenberger stopped writing restaurant reviews when he was crowned co-publisher. [CORRECTION: These were not, as reported here, technically inaccuracies. Paterno reported that Huff was “communications manager” for the newspaper, which is what Huff told her, and she was informed by others of von Wiesenberger status as critic and co-pub. AJR issued these facts as clarifications, not corrections.] The magazine, Paterno, and Tobin were able to verify the other 30 or so claims for retraction and correction as substantially true.

Tobin’s letter is full of embarrasing blows to McCaw and company. First of all, Tobin explained that it’s not clear even who the client is, because Stein is supposedly representing Ampersand Publishing, yet many of the demands are for individuals, namely McCaw and von Weisenberger. Also embarrasing for McCaw’s team was Tobin’s assertion that most of the alleged mistruths were actually verified by the retraction demand sent to AJR. For example, McCaw demanded that the magazine retract the suggestion that management was getting involved in newsroom dealings, but in the letter, her attorney clearly states that “Ampersand management” involved itself with “the general direction and quality of news reporting.” McCaw’s demand also stated that it was misleading to say that Travis Armstrong “killed” a story while simultaneously admitting that the article “was not published” after the reporter submitted it.

The retraction demand also listed problems with Paterno’s interpretation of events, such as her conclusion that the newspaper management was trying to silence its critics. Yet Tobin attaches Millstein’s letter to Paterno and cites it as a clear example of an attempt to silence Paterno. Also in that letter by Millstein is the statement that no one from the newspaper’s management would be doing any interviews whatsoever. That pretty much sums up Paterno’s line, which McCaw’s attorney disputed, that McCaw “consistently refused to comment on the upheaval at her newspaper.”

Tobin, a former journalist, reminds McCaw’s lawyer that “courts in [California] flatly reject all efforts to challenge substantially truthful statements, such as the reporting in the ‘Santa Barbara Smackdown’ article” and that the state is also critical of attempts to silence reporting on public affairs via the “nation’s strongest anti-SLAPP laws, which entitles litigants to recover their attorney’s fees when faced with meritless challenges to their First Amendment rights.”

But Tobin’s real home runs are in his last two paragraphs:

We are frankly dismayed that a news organization like the Santa Barbara News-Press would adopt the aggressively anti-free speech approach reflected in its December 6 letter to AJR and the frivolous lawsuit that your client has filed against Susan Paterno. Your client’s position is especially disappointing given the numerous attempts Paterno and AJR made to speak with the newspaper’s executives. Every item addressed in your letter would have more appropriately been discussed with the author before publication had Ampersand Publishing chosen to accept the invitation for an interview.

We sincerely hope that the Santa Barbara News-Press will reconsider its obligations to the journalism community, abandon its frivolous pursuit of litigation and legal threats, and commit itself instead to the free and open exchange of ideas, and the straightforward reporting of the news, that its readers deserve.”

Well put, Chuck. We’d like to see the same. For more, read the letter yourself by clicking here.

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