Ketter on the Herald libel case

William Ketter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor, former Pulitzer board member and past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, has written a fine op-ed piece on the Herald libel case.

Ketter goes right after the dubious notion — recently endorsed by the state’s Supreme Judicial Court — that Herald reporter Dave Wedge knew his characterization of Superior Court Judge Ernest Murphy as having demeaned a teenage rape victim was false, or that Wedge harbored serious doubts. Ketter writes:

It is reasonable to assume that reporter Wedge and the Boston Herald believed the information they were fed by the district attorney’s office was truthful. The news media frequently turn to prosecutors for details of cases they are involved in. A trust builds up. They are an official source of critical information.

But the SJC would have you believe the Herald had reason to seriously doubt the accuracy of the story after it was published because a lawyer for the judge said he didn’t say what the paper had published, and the Boston Globe carried a story with Murphy’s direct denial.

Ketter’s essential point — that Wedge reported what his sources in the Bristol County district attorney’s office told him (more or less), and that he had no reason to believe they weren’t telling him the truth — is right on target. I hope Herald publisher Pat Purcell keeps fighting this.

5 thoughts on “Ketter on the Herald libel case

  1. Anonymous

    Dan – No offense, but Mr. Ketter’s op-ed piece leaves much to be desired if the goal is to provoke an informed public discussion of the Murphy v. Herald case. The first half of the piece is a useful summary of First Amendment law that I can’t quibble with. But then Mr. Ketter gets to the Herald case itself and his reasoning goes all soft and grade-schoolish:”And that’s what is so puzzling about the Judge Murphy case. Particularly when you consider that most large libel judgments are overturned on appeal due to the complicated legal nature of defamation suits.” – Is it puzzling because the verdict against the Herald was affirmed, whereas “most” defamation verdicts are overturned on appeal? I would have thought the more pertinent observation was that the SJC decision was unanimous (meaning the Herald’s arguments could not convince a single justice).”It is reasonable to assume that reporter Wedge and the Boston Herald believed the information they were fed by the district attorney’s office was truthful. The news media frequently turn to prosecutors for details of cases they are involved in. A trust builds up. They are an official source of critical information.” [That may be a reasonable assumption in most cases. But in this case, that assumption was rejected by the jury. That is, the jury found that Wedge and the Herald did not believe the info to be true. Juries are charged with finding the facts; the legal system does not turn on assumptions.]”But the SJC would have you believe the Herald had reason to seriously doubt the accuracy of the story after it was published because a lawyer for the judge said he didn’t say what the paper had published, and the Boston Globe carried a story with Murphy’s direct denial.” [This is the really sophomorish aspect of the op-ed’s logic. The SJC laid out page and page of evidence that the jury heard which would support the verdict. Because that evidence favors Judge Murphy and not the Herald, Mr. Ketter ignores it, perhaps hoping that no one will notice. Failing grade on the rhetoric skills for Mr. Ketter.] “Still, the district attorney didn’t back down.” [The DA did not back down, but he — DA Walsh — was not a witness to Judge Murphy’s statements. His comments were entirely hearsay.] “The Herald had ground for standing firm and continuing to believe the prosecutor’s office got it right even if the judge insisted otherwise.” [What ground? Wedge never tried to confirm the alleged statements with anyone other than the reporter, Crowley, and the evidence at trial suggests that Wedge did not even talk with Crowley until AFTER the initial story ran.] Furthermore, the reporter approached the judge directly at one point, and Murphy refused to talk with him. [The evidence is that Wedge approached Murphy in a restaurant, AFTER the initial article, and Murphy said he could not discuss pending cases.] “Shouldn’t that count for something in assessing the paper’s effort to get at the truth?” [Yes, it counts for something; just not much when placed against other evidence that Mr. Ketter fails to mention, e.g., that “Wedge testified at his deposition that he did not meet with Crowley, and thus did not confirm the accuracy of the alleged statement with any percipient witness, until after the statement had been published in the February 13 article.”; that “Wedge also admitted, in his deposition testimony, that he had no source at all for the report that the words had been spoken when prosecutors had “confronted” the plaintiff over his lenient sentencing practices. According to Wedge, the confrontation context may have been a fabrication.”; that “Wedge conceded that the statement in the February 14 article reporting that the rape victim ‘took the stand and tearfully told the [plaintiff] how the rape had affected her’ was false.”; that “Neither Wedge, nor any other Herald employee who testified at trial, could name one person at the Herald who either edited, or checked for accuracy of, the content of Wedge’s articles.”; that “In direct contrast to Wedge’s testimony, five of the six participants in the lobby conference for the robbery case (including the plaintiff) denied that anything had been said about the rape victim in that setting.”; and that “Crowley, the only participant who attested otherwise, testified that the plaintiff had said words to the effect of ‘she needs to get on with her life and get over it.’ He testified forcefully that the plaintiff had not stated the words, ‘Tell her to get over it’ and denied that he had ever told anyone that the plaintiff had done so.” Need I go on? No more convincing is Mr. Ketter’s conclusion: “As a final thought, the court said its ruling should not deter the press from reporting critically about judges or the judicial system. Yet that’s exactly what may well happen.” [It might happen, if the current stable of journalists believes that the editorial practices displayed by the Herald in this one case represents the prevailing journalistic standards for reporting on public figures. Frankly, I don’t think that the prevailing journalistic standards are so low. In fact, people in the mainstream media complain that the journalistic standards of bloggers are the ones that are severely lacking.] “Given the thunderclap of the Murphy case, and the cost of the libel judgment, you can expect fewer local papers to risk challenging a bad judge. That hardly serves the public interest in a state where judges are appointed for life and not accountable to voters.” [If Mr. Ketter is suggesting that local papers cannot exercise their First Amendment responsibilities on behalf of the citizenry unless they are permitted to engage in the sort of sloppy practices exemplified in the Murphy v. Herald case, then why is his publisher allowing him to serve as editor?] The bottom line, Dan, is that Mr. Ketter is creating a false dichotomy, i.e., absolute immunity or no reporting on public figures. Reminds me of another false dichotomy, i.e., complete support of President Bush’s war in Iraq or treason.

  2. Anonymous

    Ah, yes. If we all get sufficiently granular about the trial, we can all forget the fact that Murphy probably shouldn’t have been appointed a judge in the first place. This is what we the voters deserve for allowing laws to become defacto ethics. I suspect it’s about to become even better to be a Jupiter, FL real estate broker.

  3. O-FISH-L

    DanSince you seem very distressed by both, which (in your professorial opinion) is worse for the media: the courtroom verdict on the Herald’s attempt to destroy Judge Murphy or the U.S. electorate’s 2004 verdict after the C-BS attempt to destroy President George W. Bush?Are juries and voters beginning to strike back at the media’s previously unbridled power? Best,O-FISH-L

  4. The Scoop

    Nothing that the first anonymous commenter said makes the case for a guilty verdict. Sure, it was shoddy reporting, but that is not sufficient in a libel suit involving a public figure. No evidence was ever presented showing that the Herald knew, at the time, that the information was false but published it anyway. And without that, there should not have been a guilty verdict.

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