By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Tag: Lauren Chooljian

Pulitzer congrats to Lookout Santa Cruz, featured in our book and podcast

Ken Doctor (via LinkedIn)

Congratulations to Lookout Santa Cruz, a digital local-news startup that on Monday won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. The site was recognized for its reporting on a January 2023 flood and its aftermath. In the words of the Pulitzer board, Lookout Santa Cruz published “detailed and nimble community-focused coverage, over a holiday weekend, of catastrophic flooding and mudslides that displaced thousands of residents and destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses.” Here’s what Lookout Santa Cruz had to say about winning the award:

We reported quickly and carefully, vetting often scattered and confusing facts, making sure we got out the accurate news and information essential to individual and community decision-making. We documented in words, images and videos what people from the reaches of San Lorenzo Valley to Pajaro to Capitola were experiencing. We called on President Joe Biden to visit beleaguered South County as well as jaw-dropping coastal damage. We did what we always do, but at warp speed and still made sure that our deep reporting work got its usual double edits by our experienced, diligent editors.

Ellen Clegg and I looked at the Santa Cruz news ecosystem in our book, “What Works in Community News.” The region is served by two digital startups — Santa Cruz Local, originally a for-profit that launched in 2019 and that converted to nonprofit status after our book was finished, and Lookout Santa Cruz, a for-profit public benefit corporation right from the start. (A public benefit corporation is a for-profit that is legally required to operate with a public service mission.) We’ve also offered more depth on the two news organizations through our podcast, interviewing Santa Cruz Local co-founder Kara Meyberg Guzman and Lookout Santa Cruz founder Ken Doctor.

Lookout Santa Cruz is a high-profile, well-funded project that received $2.5 million in startup money from the likes of the Knight Foundation, the Google News Innovation Challenge and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Doctor, a former executive for a former newspaper chain, Knight Ridder, spent years writing about the business of news for publications such as Nieman Lab and his own blog, Newsonomics, which is now on ice.

Doctor’s entry into the Santa Cruz media scene was not without controversy. As we wrote in our book, “Another competing media outlet, the alternative weekly Good Times, greeted Lookout with a blast, claiming that Doctor was benefiting from the ‘false narrative’ that Santa Cruz was a news desert. Doctor responded by calling that ‘the greatest free publicity that we could ever get.'”

Guzman, too, expressed a bit of pique over Doctor’s arrival, telling us that she and her business partner, Stephen Baxter — unlike Doctor — had struggled to raise the money they needed to start Santa Cruz Local after leaving Alden Global Capital’s Santa Cruz Sentinel, though over time they were able to attract some money from Google and Facebook and build a viable business. Guzman described Santa Cruz Local’s mission as providing deep accountability journalism of local government and other institutions, while Doctor said Lookout Santa Cruz was aiming to become the “new primary news source” at a time when the Santa Cruz Sentinel was fading away.

Lookout Santa Cruz is also intended as the first in a series of Lookout Local sites. Maybe the Pulitzer will give Doctor’s project the prominence it needs to start building out his idea.

Two finalists of note

Lookout Santa Cruz was one of three projects profiled in “What Works in Community News” to receive Pulitzer recognition on Monday, though it was the only one to make it into the winner’s circle. Here are the organizations we followed that earned finalist recogition:

  • Mississippi Today, in Local Reporting, for a collaboration with The New York Times that offered a “detailed examination of corruption and abuse, including the torturing of suspects, by Mississippi sheriffs and their officers over two decades.” We interviewed Mississippi Today CEO Mary Margaret White on our podcast in November 2022. (Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe won a 2023 Pulitzer for her coverage of official corruption.)
  • The Texas Tribune, in Explanatory Reporting, for a collaboration with ProPublic and “Frontline” that reports on “law enforcement’s catastrophic response to the mass shooting at a Uvalde, Texas elementary school and also for documenting the political and policy shortcomings that have led to similar deadly police failures across the country.” The Tribune is the subject of a chapter in our book.

Courage recognized

When we think about courageous journalists, what usually comes to mind are war correspondents. But courage can be found closer to home, too — as in the case of Lauren Chooljian and her colleagues at New Hampshire Public Radio, who were subjected to frightening harassment and daunting legal challenges while they were reporting on “corruption and sexual abuse within the lucrative recovery industry.” For their efforts they were recognized as a finalist in the Audio Reporting category. And here is a New York Times story (free link) on their ordeal.

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Four indicted on federal harassment charges targeting NHPR journalists

A federal grand jury has indicted four men from New Hampshire in connection with what authorities allege was “a conspiracy to harass and intimidate two journalists employed by New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR).” The case involves vandalism against the homes of NHPR reporter Lauren Chooljian, her parents, and her editor, Dan Barrick. The story has attracted national attention, including a rather harrowing account last June in The New York Times (free link).

There’s an interesting angle to the latest news. In June, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Boston announced that three men had been charged: Tucker Cockerline, 32, of Salem, Eric Labarge, 46, of Nashua; and Michael Waselchuck, 35, of Seabrook. Now a fourth suspect has been added to the list: Keenan Saniatan, 36, of Nashua. Each could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

All of this is related to reporting by NHPR that Eric Spofford, the politically connected founder New Hampshire’s largest network of addiction treatment centers, had engaged in sexual harassment. The suspects are allegedly associates of Spofford, who has not been charged. In fact, Spofford is claiming libel in a lawsuit against Chooljian and NHPR. The state judge in the case, Daniel St. Hilaire, raised First Amendment concerns by ordering NHPR to turn over documents so that he could determine whether they supported Spofford’s libel claim. The libel suit, however, is now on hold, according to Nancy West of the investigative website InDepthNH, because St. Hilaire has gone on leave for an unspecified reason.

The vandalism that was allegedly committed by the four suspects was frightening and vile; if you want to read the gory details, it’s all in the press release.

Update: West of InDepthNH tells me that Judge St. Hilaire has been back from leave for a while and that she’ll soon be writing about the latest developments in Spofford’s libel case.

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Three face federal charges in vandalism and harassment targeting NHPR journalists

Federal authorities have charged three men in the vandalism and harassment case involving two journalists at New Hampshire Public Radio. In the press release below, issued Friday by the U.S. attorney’s office for Massachusetts, “Victim 1” is NHPR reporter Lauren Chooljian; “Victim 2” is her editor, Dan Barrick; and “Subject 1” is Eric Spofford, the founder New Hampshire’s largest network of addiction treatment centers.

Spofford has denied any involvement in or knowledge of the vandalism. He has filed a libel suit against Chooljian and NHPR, which drew the attention of The New York Times (free link) after a judge ordered that NHPR let him examine the transcripts of interviews so that he can determine if they are relevant to Spofford’s claim. The full press release is as follows:

BOSTON — Three New Hampshire men have been charged in connection with a conspiracy to harass and intimidate two New Hampshire journalists employed by New Hampshire Public Radio (NHPR). The alleged harassment and intimidation of the victims included the vandalism — on five separate occasions — of the victims’ homes, as well as the vandalism of the home of one of the victim’s immediate family members with bricks, large rocks and red spray paint.

Tucker Cockerline, 32, of Salem, N.H., Michael Waselchuck, 35, of Seabrook, N.H. and Keenan Saniatan, 36, of Nashua, N.H. were each charged by criminal complaint with conspiring to commit stalking through interstate travel. Cockerline and Waselchuck were arrested this morning and, following an initial appearance in federal court in Boston this afternoon, were detained pending a hearing scheduled for June 20, 2023 at 2 p.m. Saniatan remains at large.

“The critical role that the press plays in our society goes back to the founding of our nation. Today’s charges should send a clear message that the Department of Justice will not tolerate harassment or intimidation of journalists. If you engage in this type of vicious and vindictive behavior you will be held accountable,” said Acting United States Attorney Joshua S. Levy.

“Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of any healthy democracy and these three men are now accused of infringing on that freedom by conspiring to harass and intimidate two New Hampshire journalists who were simply doing their jobs,” said Christopher DiMenna, Acting Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Boston Field Division. “Everyone has a right to express their opinion, but taking it over the line and committing vandalism will not be tolerated.”

According to the charging document, after a year-long investigation, an NHPR journalist (Victim 1) published an article in March 2022 detailing allegations of sexual and other misconduct by a former New Hampshire businessperson, identified in the charging document as Subject 1. Another NHPR journalist (Victim 2) also contributed to the article, which appeared on NHPR’s website during and after March 2022. Thereafter, it is alleged that Cockerline, Waselchuck and Saniatan conspired with each other and with at least one other individual – allegedly identified as a close personal associate of Subject 1 — to retaliate against NHPR and Victims 1 and 2 by vandalizing the victims’ homes with bricks and large rocks, as well as spray-painting lewd and threatening language on the homes’ exteriors. It is alleged that the following acts of vandalisms occurred in April and May 2022:

  • At approximately 11:00 p.m. on April 24, 2022, a brick was thrown through a front exterior window of Victim’s 1’s former residence in Hanover, N.H. The word “C*NT” was spray-painted in large red letters on the front door;
  • On the evening of April 24, 2022 or during the early morning hours of April 25, 2022, the word “C*NT” was spray-painted in large red letters on the front door of Victim 2’s home in Concord, N.H. The exterior of the home was also damaged by a large rock, which appeared to have been thrown at the house;
  • Shortly before midnight on April 24, 2022 or during the early morning hours of April 25, 2022, a softball-sized rock was thrown through a front exterior window of Victim 1’s parents’ home in Hampstead, N.H. The word “C*NT” was spray-painted in large red letters on one of the garage doors;
  • At approximately 12:54 a.m. on May 21, 2022, Victim 1’s parents’ home in Hampstead was vandalized a second time. The word “C*NT” was spray-painted in large red letters on one of the garage doors. Although no windows were broken, a brick was discovered on the ground near the house’s foundation as if it had been thrown at the house; and
  • At approximately 5:54 a.m. on May 21, 2022, a brick was thrown through an exterior window of Victim 1’s house in Melrose, Mass. The phrase “JUST THE BEGINNING” was spray-painted in large red letters on the front of the home.

The charging documents allege that Cockerline, Saniatan and Waselchuck are responsible for committing all five of these vandalisms.

The charge of conspiracy to commit interstate stalking carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, three years of supervised release, a fine of up to $250,000 and restitution.  Sentences are imposed by a federal district court judge based upon the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines and statutes which govern the determination of a sentence in a criminal case.

Acting U.S. Attorney Levy and FBI Acting SAC DiMenna made the announcement today. Valuable assistance was provided by the Concord, Hampstead and Hanover, New Hampshire Police Departments and the Melrose, Massachusetts Police Department. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of New Hampshire provided valuable assistance. Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jason A. Casey and Torey B. Cummings of Levy’s Criminal Division are prosecuting the case.

The details contained in the charging documents are allegations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.


NHPR case illustrates the limits of actual malice

U.S. Supreme Court. Photo (cc) by Kjetil Ree

The harassment endured by Lauren Chooljian, a reporter for New Hampshire Public Radio, is frightening and horrifying. David Enrich of The New York Times reported last week (free link) that Chooljian, her parents and her editor have been subjected to vandalism and threats after she reported on sexual misconduct allegations against Eric Spofford, who founded the state’s largest network of addiction treatment centers.

Spofford denies having anything to do with the vandalism. But there’s an interesting wrinkle to the case that I want to discuss, and that’s Spofford’s libel suit against Chooljian and NHPR. Because of Spofford’s prominence, he has been designated as a public figure, which means that he must show actual malice (as well as falsity and defamation) in order to win his suit. Actual malice, as you probably know, requires that the plaintiff prove the defendant published the offending material despite knowing or strongly suspecting it was false.

NHPR has been ordered by Judge Daniel St. Hilaire to turn over transcripts of interviews, including with anonymous sources. “Legal experts,” Enrich wrote, “called the ruling unusual and alarming, saying such decisions could make it harder for journalists to investigate potential wrongdoing by public figures.” And Enrich quoted one of those experts, Chad Bowman, as saying it was “‘deeply troubling’ for a judge to force journalists to hand over unpublished materials when the plaintiff hadn’t yet made a viable legal claim.”

The last part of that statement is the key: Spofford has not yet presented the sort of evidence that would suggest he could win if allowed to proceed. St. Hilaire seems to be putting the cart before the horse. But if Spofford does have a viable case, then he’s entitled to gather the evidence he needs to pursue it. Remember, he needs to prove actual malice. That means it’s essential that he be allowed to probe the inner workings of Chooljian’s and NHPR’s reporting and editing processes to see whether they knew what they were broadcasting was false or if they harbored any serious doubts about it.

At one time libel had been regarded as what you might call a no-fault tort. That is, if you could show that you had been defamed with falsehoods, then you would win your case, regardless of the news organization’s motivation. In the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch, however, the Supreme Court ruled that even private individuals would have to prove negligence. With at least two members of the current Supreme Court, Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, having suggested they’d like to revisit libel law, it’s worth thinking about whether negligence might be a better standard than actual malice, even for public officials and public figures.

The problem with actual malice has always been that though it makes it extremely difficult for a plaintiff to win a libel suit against the news media, it also gives the plaintiff entree into a news outlet’s private communications. Consider that, in 2005, The Boston Globe lost a libel suit brought by a doctor in the case of Betsy Lehman, a Globe reporter who died after receiving a massive overdose of a chemotherapy drug. In that case, the judge ruled that Dr. Lois Ayash won what turned out to be a $2 million judgment by default after the Globe refused to turn over its confidential sources, as the judge had ordered.

Ayash was entitled to that information, but there was no way the Globe was going to betray its confidential sources. If a negligence standard had been in effect rather than actual malice, then the jury could have determined whether the Globe had acted negligently without probing into its reporting processes.

So, too, with the NHPR case. The problem here, again, is that it’s not clear whether Chooljian reported anything that was false. Truth is almost always considered an absolute defense in a libel case, which is why Judge St. Hilaire seems to be acting prematurely. Nevertheless, the case is a good illustration of why actual malice — defined in the landmark Times v. Sullivan case in 1964 — may have been a mistake, and why negligence may be a more workable standard.

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