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Jerry Roberts Lambasts McCaw’s AJR Lawsuit


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Former N-P Editor Fires Back at Wendy McCaw

Wendy McCaw, owner of the Santa Barbara News-Press, used her lawsuit against an American Journalism Review writer to “publicly attack and defame” former editor Jerry Roberts (pictured receiving the Society of Professional Journalists ethics award), his attorney contends.

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McCaw’s recent suit in an Orange County court against Susan Paterno (download that here in PDF form), author of the recent “Santa Barbara Smackdown” piece in the AJR, accuses Paterno of defamation regarding the News-Press and “trade libel.” But it was also a “calculated end-run” around current arbitration proceedings to trash Roberts’ reputation, San Francisco attorney Andrine K. Smith told The Independent on Wednesday.

Roberts, former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, resigned from the News-Press in early July amid staff complaints that McCaw was interfering with news coverage. Since then, about 30 newsroom staffers have left, including this writer, and several were fired during the resulting unionization effort.

McCaw (pictured) then filed a $500,000 claim against Roberts now under arbitration proceedings, which are supposed to be kept confidential. WendyMcCaw.jpg But McCaw’s suit “is not just about Susan Paterno or the AJR story,” said Roberts’ attorney. “We believe it is just as much about Jerry Roberts.” It is “a calculated end-run around the confidentiality protections of the arbitration proceedings filed by (McCaw) against Mr. Roberts and provides the means for Ms. McCaw to publicly attack and defame Mr. Roberts with impunity under the absolute protection of the litigation privilege.” Under California law, anything said in a lawsuit or litigation, no matter how defamatory, cannot be used in a libel suit against the person making the statements.

“We concur with the numerous other commentators that the suit is but the latest attempt by Ms. McCaw to intimidate and silence those who speak out against her, or who report on those who speak out against her, and is intended to have a chilling effect on anyone who might consider doing so in the future,” Smith said. (For more details on what might happen to anyone trying to “have a chilling effect” on public participation, see the California Anti-SLAPP Project at casp.net.)

McCaw’s suit claimed that the AJR piece was “nothing but a biased, false, and misleading diatribe” against the News-Press. It was “one-sided” and “false and defamatory,” the suit alleged. In addition to lobbing critical barbs at Roberts, the suit included a claim that he “became verbally abusive” with McCaw, leading her to stop speaking to him, apparently for the last two years of his tenure. Her suit exposed much dirty laundry about mounting newsroom tensions since she bought the paper in 2000.

AJR editor Rem Rieder defended Paterno’s account, which cited many issues related to the upheaval at the paper since early July. ajr.jpg “This story is carefully reported, carefully fact-checked,” Rieder said in a December 19 story in Editor & Publisher. “Suing the writer like this is just a form of intimidation,” he said. “It is particularly unfortunate to see something like this from someone who owns a newspaper. You’d think someone who owns a newspaper would be committed to free expression.”

Although McCaw sued writer Paterno as an individual and not AJR, Rieder said the paper would provide legal support for Paterno, who is director of the journalism program at Chapman University in Orange, California. AJR is published by the University of Maryland.

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