Defamation Twist. (Reporter Sues Source)

By Sherman, Erik | American Journalism Review, June-July 2003 | Go to article overview

Defamation Twist. (Reporter Sues Source)


Sherman, Erik, American Journalism Review


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 maybe 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. …

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