A big year for Remy-related blog posts at Media Nation

265077699_ec8da74abf_o
Photo (cc) by Paul. Some rights reserved.

On Tuesday I posted WordPress’ robo-generated report on my year in blogging. But you knew I wasn’t going to stop there, didn’t you? For the past several years I’ve been writing an end-of-the-year round-up of my top 10 posts. It’s always interesting to me to see what resonates most with my readers.

These lists always come with caveats, and this year’s has a big one. Starting last spring, I began offering what I thought were my better blog posts to my friends at WGBHNews.org, who published them first and promoted them on social media. Though I later reposted them on Media Nation, they had already lost a lot of their juice by that point. So it’s hard to know what my top 10 list really means. Maybe I should call this list “The Best of the Rest.”

And away we go.

1. Is Jerry Remy’s broadcasting career finally over? (March 23). The answer, as it turned out, was “no.” But following a devastating story in The Boston Globe by Eric Moskowitz on Remy’s homicidal son, Jared, and the lengths to which Jerry Remy and his wife, Phoebe, had enabled his violent behavior, it sure looked that way, if only for a brief moment. Within days, though, Jerry Remy was back in the broadcast booth, yukking it up uncomfortably with Don Orsillo during Red Sox games. There was all kinds of internal intrigue to this. Both the Globe and the Red Sox are owned by John Henry, who is also a part-owner of Remy’s employer, New England Sports Network. (Page views: 7,714.)

2. Boston.com retracts claim about racist email from professor (Dec. 11). In early December, Boston.com had a phenomenon on its hands: contentious, legalistic emails from Harvard Business School professor (and lawyer) Ben Edelman complaining to a Chinese restaurant about having been overcharged by $4. But then the Boston Globe Media-owned site overreached. Hilary Sargent, who had written the original story, cowrote a follow-up reporting that Edelman had sent one of the owners, Ran Duan, a racist email. It couldn’t be verified, and the story was pulled back. It got worse: It turned out that Sargent had also designed a T-shirt making fun of Edelman that she was selling online. Sargent, the site’s deputy editor (the top editing job was vacant), was suspended for a week. David Bernstein has a good overview of the whole affair at Boston magazine. (Page views: 2,827.)

3. Boston.com’s anonymous sports blogger to be unmasked (March 24). (Page views: 2,648.)

4. Meet the Obnoxious Boston Fan (March 25). I am startled that these two posts received the attention that they did. After the Globe’s exposé about the Remy family, an anonymous Boston.com blogger who writes as the Obnoxious Boston Fan posted a harsh commentary about Remy. It struck me as inappropriate that a Globe-affiliated site would allow anonymous attacks on anyone. Globe digital adviser David Skok told me that Mr. OBF would soon drop the anonymity — and in my follow-up post, I was able to identify him ahead of the official unveiling as Bill Speros. (Page views: 2,178.)

5. Big moves as Globe prepares to expand its business section (Nov. 13). (Page views: 1,870.)

6. Eagan leaves Herald, will write for Globe’s Catholic site (July 30). (Page views: 1,685.)

7. Globe executive announces digital moves (July 29). Probably the biggest ongoing local media story is Boston Globe owner John Henry’s various investments in growth — a new weekly political section (Capital), a Catholic website (Crux) and an expanded business section. These three posts documented a few of those developments. (Page views: 1,609.)

8. Jared Remy joins his dad in attacking Margery Eagan (April 25). The fourth Remy-related item in the top 10. Eagan, then with the Boston Herald, had the temerity to criticize Jerry Remy in her column. Jerry Remy went after her on the air — and Jared Remy joined in from his prison cell. (Page views: 1,495.)

9. Globe to offer buyouts to some staff members (Aug. 1). Not all the news from Globe headquarters in 2014 was about investment and expansion. Even as the news organization grew, it announced cuts in other areas. (Page views: 1,338.)

10. Boston Herald loses libel suit over false prison sex story (March 19). The plaintiff, Joanna Marinova, was awarded $563,000 over a story that falsely claimed she had engaged in “sexual acts” with an inmate during a 2009 trip to Bridgewater State Prison. Marinova and state Rep. Gloria Fox had visited the prison in order to investigate claims of inmate abuse. (Page views: 1,187.)

Boston Herald settles libel suit

In a final coda to a longstanding libel suit, the Associated Press reports that the Boston Herald has agreed to pay $900,000 to Joanna Marinova, the woman whom the paper had falsely claimed engaged in “sexual acts” with an inmate she was visiting at Bridgewater state prison.

I’m not sure why there seems to be such a disparity between the $900,000 reported by the AP and the $563,000 cited last March by attorney Jeffrey Pyle in a guest commentary for Media Nation.

The details of the case are enormously complex. Here is what I wrote when the jury verdict against the Herald was handed down. It includes links to more background information.

The takeaway from the Herald libel verdict

PyleBy Jeffrey J. Pyle

What should we take away from Wednesday’s $563,000 jury verdict against the Boston Herald? As a lawyer who represents newspapers, magazines and broadcasters, I have a few thoughts.

Much of the attention on the case has focused on the provocative words “sexual acts.” That’s how the Herald described what happened between Marinova and her then-boyfriend, inmate Darrell Jones, in the visitor’s room of the Old Colony Prison in Bridgewater in November 2008. The Herald relied on a prison disciplinary report, but failed to mention that the report alleged only that Jones had kissed Marinova and touched her knee. Marinova’s lawyers argued that “sexual acts” means sexual intercourse, and thus the “gist” of the article was false and defamatory. The jury apparently agreed.

But if the only problem with this story had been the explosive description of the conduct as “sexual acts,” this case probably would never have made it to a jury. That is because the prison disciplinary report did, in fact, charge Jones with engaging in “sexual acts” with Marinova. The Herald put quotes around those words and cited the disciplinary report. So why wasn’t the Herald protected under the fair report privilege?

The fair report privilege, of course, is the age-old legal protection that allows the media to report on official proceedings without being held liable for fairly and accurately describing them. It’s an exception to the rule that a “republisher” of a libel (the press) is just as guilty as the original publisher (the false accuser). However, the privilege only applies to official government proceedings or statements, and any description of a proceeding must be fair and accurate.

The Supreme Judicial Court applied this rule in Howell v. Enterprise Publishing Co., where a public employee was fired for having inappropriately explicit images on his work computer. He sued the Enterprise for describing the images as “pornography” and “porn” — words he said were so exaggerated as to be inaccurate. However, a formal charging document against Howell described the images as “photographs and cartoon-style pictures of a pornographic nature.”

The court held that “[w]hether the images were pornographic or not,” the fair report privilege applied because “it was not substantially inaccurate or unfair” of the Enterprise “to report that the official accusation leveled against Howell was that the images were ‘pornographic.’” In other words, even if a reasonable person wouldn’t have considered the images “pornography,” the fair report privilege allowed the Enterprise to report that the town had charged him with possessing “pornography,” and thus the report wasn’t unfair or inaccurate.

By contrast, in Marinova, the jury heard a litany of ways in which the Herald failed to fairly and accurately describe the prison disciplinary report beyond the mere use of the words “sexual acts.” The article said that Jones was “cited” for “sexual acts” with Marinova, but failed to mention that a hearing officer had dismissed the charge, finding that the conduct did not, in fact, constitute “sexual acts.” A report is not fair, the SJC has ruled, if it is “edited and deleted as to misrepresent the proceeding and thus be misleading.” Second, the article suggested that Marinova herself had been “bagged” and “written up” for the acts. She was never charged with anything. In that sense, Marinova had a good argument that the report was inaccurate — that it did not convey a “substantially correct account of the proceedings,” in the SJC’s words. Third, the article said that Rep. Gloria Fox was under scrutiny for “sneaking” Marinova into the prison, even though Marinova, according to her lawyers, had been cleared to visit the prison just two days earlier. The jury found all these statements to be false and defamatory, and rejected the Herald’s argument that its article fairly and accurately described the disciplinary report.

The takeaway for journalists is pretty clear: when you’re reporting on official documents or proceedings, feel free to quote even their most salacious allegations. But, don’t ignore important elements of those proceedings, like a dismissal, or the fact that only one and not two people were charged. When you do, and the article hurts someone’s reputation, it’s easy for even a public figure to win a libel suit. The jury here found not only that the Herald’s reporter was negligent, but that she published the statements with knowledge of their falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth.

Jeffrey J. Pyle is a partner at the Boston law firm of Prince Lobel Tye and a trial lawyer specializing in First Amendment and media law.

Another perspective on the Herald libel suit

Here’s an interesting perspective on the Boston Herald libel suit. In July 2009, the Jamaica Plain Gazette reported that inmates were claiming that prison officials were cracking down on their efforts to reach out to young people as part of an anti-crime initiative. The article includes this:

Recent articles in the Boston Herald that claimed state Rep. Gloria Fox sneaked a woman into prison for illicit visits were incorrect, several sources told the Gazette, confirming a press statement issued by Fox. In fact, Fox also was responding to complaints about retaliation against prisoners, and the false tips that led to the Herald’s articles were part of that payback, according to Hudson and other sources.

“Hudson” is a reference to a prisoner named Mac Hudson. The Gazette story also quoted Steven Kenneway, head of the guards union, as denying that any retaliation had taken place.

The libel suit was brought by Joanna Marinova, an activist who, according to the Herald, was caught engaging in “sexual acts” with an inmate during a visit to the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater. On Wednesday, a Superior Court jury ruled that the Herald’s story, written by Jessica Van Sack, was false and awarded Marinova about $563,000.

The Herald maintains that its reporting was correct and, in this story, says “it will continue to defend its article and reporter Jessica Van Sack going forward.”

Boston Herald loses libel suit over false prison-sex story

David Frank of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly reports that the Boston Herald has lost a libel suit brought by a woman who charged the paper had falsely claimed she engaged in “sexual acts” while visiting an inmate at Bridgewater State Prison in 2009. Lawyers Weekly has posted the jury’s verdict form as well.

The plaintiff, Joanna Marinova, was awarded about $563,000 in damages. According to Frank, Marinova’s lawyer, David Rich, “argued that the story was intended to sensationalize a trip that his client and Rep. Gloria Fox made to the prison to investigate alleged incidents of inmate abuse.”

Herald lawyer Peter Biagetti provided a statement to Lawyers Weekly that reads in part: “The article was meticulously researched, carefully written and extremely well-documented. We are proud of it, and of the journalist who wrote it.”

Rich was part of the legal team that represented former Superior Court judge Ernest Murphy, who won a $2.1 million libel verdict against the Herald in 2005.

Disclosure: In 2011 I moderated a panel organized by Marinova on the media and violence.

Click here for a post I wrote about the case in 2011, which included some tough words for the Herald from Superior Court Judge Raymond Brassard.

Click here for a 2009 analysis by Adam Reilly, then of The Boston Phoenix, now of WGBH-TV (Channel 2).

5:10 p.m. update: Stories have now been posted by the Herald, The Boston Globe, CommonWealth magazine and the Boston Business Journal.

Violence, art and the media’s responsibilities

Journalists from a number of Boston news organizations will gather this Thursday evening for a panel discussion about the media’s role and responsibilities in covering urban violence.

Part of the exhibit “Anonymous Boston,” which documents the lives of young murder victims and how the media covered their deaths, the discussion will be held at the Fourth Wall Project, near Kenmore Square, at 132 Brookline Ave. The panel is titled “If It Bleeds, It Leads: The Role of Media in Urban Violence.” I will have the honor of moderating.

The exhibit is the subject of this week’s cover story in the Boston Phoenix by Chris Faraone. As you will see, the families of murder victims say the loss of their children is often compounded by sensational, inaccurate media coverage and by hateful online comments.

The Boston Herald is singled out by several people as a particularly egregious offender. Morever, Joanna Marinova-Jones, the community activist who has overseen the exhibit, is in the midst of a libel suit against the Herald. Despite those facts (or maybe because of them), I’m hoping the Herald will accept our invitation for what is intended as a substantive, civil conversation.

Participants who have already confirmed include Boston Globe city editor Steve Smith, Bay State Banner executive editor Howard Manly, WGBH Radio (89.7 FM) senior investigative reporter Phillip Martin, El Planeta managing editor Marcela Garcia, pioneering African-American television reporter Sarah Ann Shaw and Faraone.

The event will take place from 6 to 8 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

Libel suit against Herald will proceed

Judge Raymond Brassard

A Superior Court judge recently refused to throw out a libel suit brought against the Boston Herald by a woman who claims the paper defamed her by falsely reporting she’d had sex with an inmate during a visit to the Old Colony Correctional Center in Bridgewater. The suit was filed in 2010, and I posted some background on the case at that time.

The plaintiff, Joanna Marinova, accompanied state Rep. Gloria Fox, D-Boston, on a visit to the prison in May 2009. The Herald published a front-page story on May 28 of that year by reporter Jessica Van Sack saying that Fox had snuck Marinova in to see her boyfriend, a convicted murderer named Darrell Jones, and that Marinova had been “previously bagged for engaging in ‘sexual acts’ with the killer con.”

Marinova says the story is false. According to prison records introduced as part of the lawsuit, Jones had been disciplined for kissing Marinova and rubbing her leg, but there was no suggestion the two had had sex.

According to a story in the current Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (sub. req.), the Herald’s lawyer, Elizabeth Ritvo, argued that the case should be dismissed because Marinova’s contention that the Herald had claimed she and Jones had sex was “a strange and tortured interpretation” of what the paper actually published.

But Judge Raymond Brassard disagreed, saying “it seems to me that not only a reasonable reader, but virtually any reader, even a First Amendment lawyer would read that and think this person was involved in some sort of sexual intercourse with this man at the prison. I don’t know how a reasonable person could think otherwise.”

Marinova’s lawyer is David Rich, who was part of the legal team that successfully sued the Herald on behalf of former judge Ernest Murphy several years ago. In an unrelated action, Tom Scholz, leader of the band Boston, is suing the Herald for libel over accusations that were made following the suicide of lead singer Brad Delp.

Marinova had also sued WHDH-TV (Channel 7), which broadcast a story similar to the Herald’s. Lawyers Weekly reports that the two sides have apparently reached a settlement.

The hearing that led Judge Brassard not to grant the Herald’s motion for summary judgment was held on Sept. 22. I have posted the document here.