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Switzer Libel Trial Explores Ethics: Testimony Filled with Checkbook Journalism and Conspiracy Charges

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Switzer Libel Trial Explores Ethics: Testimony Filled with Checkbook Journalism and Conspiracy Charges

Article excerpt

With jurors in their fourth day of deliberation April 1, the $30 million libel action former Dallas Times Herald sportswriter Jack Taylor has brought against former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer is apparently proving as complex to the jury as to journalist observers.

During its five weeks, both sides of the trial in Austin, Texas, have debated journalism ethics and practices, fought over whether a reporter is a public figure, and resurrected accounts of dirty collegiate football teams and checkbook journalism.

Taylor, now with the Los Angeles Daily News, and his wife Myrna Lee Taylor are suing Switzer; ghostwriter Edwin "Bud" Shrake; Switzer's brother, attorney Donald Switzer; publishing house William Morrow & Co., a division of Hearst; and Prime Time, a company owned by Switzer.

Taylor charges that he was defamed in Switzer's ghostwritten autobiography, Bootlegger's Boy. The best seller suggests Taylor conspired with a girlfriend of a University of Oklahoma football player to set up the player for a drug-smuggling arrest.

The spectacle of an investigative reporter filing a libel suit raised some newspaper industry eyebrows. Indeed, Taylor left the now-defunct Times Herald after disagreements with editor Roy Bode about the propriety of journalists suing for libel.

Equally unsetting for some, however, has been the role of Hearst attorneys in attempting to force another former Times, Herald sportswriter, Dan Langendorf, to give up all his notes and office and home telephone records.

At the trial, Taylor stirred up more ethnical questions when he testified that the Times Herald on two occassions in 1987 had paid a former Southern Methodist University player, Jeff Atkins, for information about SMU's corruption-tainted football program.

In interviews, two former editors of the Times Herald said they vaguely recalled perhaps one small payment to Atkins, though both said the information was never published.

"I can't even remember how it got to me," said C. David Burgin, Times Herald editor in 1987. "It's not something I brought up. I remember I did agonize over it, because of the checkbook journalism thing. I remember we decided we were going to say in the paper that we paid.

"He was supposed to blow the whistle on the whole [SMU] thing, but I think we ended up getting stiffed," added Burgin, now vice president and editor for the Alameda Newspapers group. …

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