In New Jersey, an Asbury Park Press reporter turns the tables on the typical by suing a source for defamation.
By Erik Sherman
Sherman, a writer based in Massachusetts, has written for Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report.
Most reporters dread the possibility of ending up in court in a defamation suit, facing the subject of a story. Carol Gorga Williams asked for it. The Asbury Park Press reporter filed the complaint.
It is rare for journalists to allege defamation of their character, and according to a variety of legal and journalism experts, this may be the first time a reporter has taken such action against the subject of a story. But beyond the "man bites dog" curiosity, the case raises questions about how news organizations should react to external pressure, and about the viability of journalists borrowing a tactic so often used against them.
Last year, Williams reported on a scandal at Ocean County, New Jersey's Office of the Public Defender, resulting in negative coverage for Robert Tarver, the head of the group. At one point, the acting head state public defender allegedly telephoned Tarver. According to a purported transcript of the conversation--which Tarver and his lawyer, Linda Kenney, sent to Asbury Park Press editors--the defender claimed Williams was having an extramarital affair with her source, an attorney in Tarver's office.
Though Williams denies the affair, her editors eventually reassigned her, over her "very strong objections," from the courthouse beat that she had covered for seven years to a more general criminal justice slot.
Williams then fell ill and was in and out of the hospital until January of this year, when she returned to a new beat, criminal justice reporter. She filed a defamation suit against Tarver and his lawyer. Tarver, in turn, retained Bruce Rosen, a lawyer well-known for his press defense work for clients that include the New York Times.
First Amendment lawyers and journalism professors contacted for this story couldn't recall another case in which a reporter sued a source. Edward Davis, a partner in the New York office of Davis Wright Tremaine, who has represented the Village Voice and Rolling Stone, says, "Ordinarily when you're looking at when journalists are involved in lawsuits, the lawsuits usually have something to do with what they've written."
Though she knows some might think that suing a source is inappropriate, Williams believes it was her only option. "It's very difficult, because you don't want the lawsuit to result in any precedent that would hurt journalism," says Williams. "But these people effectively manipulated a reporter off a story."
There is nothing new about subjects of stories applying pressure to news organizations. But when sources challenge the work or integrity of a reporter, editors must balance their coverage concerns with ethics considerations. "If a reporter for whatever reason is perceived to be ineffective, that reporter should be moved," says Conrad Fink, a professor at the University of Georgia's journalism school. "The question is whether editors and publishers...[are] simply responding to pressure or making a judgment of what's best for the paper."
It is difficult to understand the motivation of the Asbury Park Press editors, since they've declined to comment on details, citing personnel or privacy issues. Yet Williams is clear why she filed the suit: "Because I had to. It was the only action to take to clear the air. I feel reduced in the newsroom. If there had been a different response internally, I wouldn't have needed the suit."
"The silence [of the paper's management] may be deafening," says Kerrie Hook, a partner in Washington, D.C., law firm Collier Shannon Scott. Hook, however, does believe the paper could have legitimate reasons for staying mum. But, she adds, "I don't think the silence is helping the reporter. It's going to make people wonder."
Ultimately, the suit may offer Williams no solace. In response to a motion filed by Rosen, the judge declared Williams a limited purpose public figure. She now must prove actual malice on the part of Tarver and Kenney to win her case, a legal principle that news organizations typically use in protecting themselves in libel suits.
And despite Williams' wishes, there could be a backlash for reporters. "My gut feeling is that reporters suing public officials for defamation is a disaster," says Jack Lule, a Lehigh University journalism professor. "Too often we complain that defamation laws are abused by public officials." The complaints could sound hollow if journalists use the same tactics.
However, Lule was surprised by the way the paper treated the original complaints against Williams. "Once we satisfy ourselves that the reporter has followed ethical guidelines, then the support for the reporter should be total and the resources of the newspaper should be brought to bear. [Reporters] should never be pulled off of a beat because they angered a source enough that they made the source want to retaliate. They can think all I have to do is cause a confrontation and have the reporter pulled from the case."