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Reporter liable on ‘false light’ claim for reporting incorrect rumor

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  1. Libel and Privacy

    NMU         NEW HAMPSHIRE         Privacy         Jun 16, 2000    

Reporter liable on ‘false light’ claim for reporting incorrect rumor

  • A former New York Times reporter who was sued for reporting a false rumor about a businessman’s supposed criminal past cast him in a false light but did not defame him, a federal jury decided.

A U.S. District Court jury in Concord, New Hampshire on June 9 ordered a former New York Times reporter to pay $480,000 for invading a businessman’s privacy by portraying him in a false light.

The controversy stemmed from a 1994 article by reporter Susan Antilla discussing a Wall Street rumor about the identity of Robert Howard, founder of Presstek Inc. of Hudson, N.H.

“Is Robert Howard really Howard Finkelstein?” the article begins. Finkelstein, a convicted felon who went to jail in the 1970s for securities law violations, had used the alias “Robert Howard.”

Antilla’s article included Howard’s denial, as well as the Securities and Exchange Commission’s refusal to confirm or deny the rumor.

The next day, the Times ran a note with an update reporting that Howard’s lawyers gave the newspaper information dispelling the rumor after the article ran. “The Times regrets having printed the rumor,” the note said.

In 1997, Howard filed a suit against Antilla for defamation and false light invasion of privacy. He argued that she intended to suggest that the rumor was true, when she either knew the rumor was false or recklessly disregarded the truth.

Bill Chapman, a Concord lawyer representing Antilla, disagreed. “We tried to be neutral as to the rumor,” Chapman told the Concord Monitor. “We tried to indicate there were facts that both supported and contradicted the rumor.” Antilla, who declined comment through her lawyer, left the Times about five years ago for a job at Bloomberg News.

The court told the jury that the reporter could be liable for false light invasion of privacy only if it found that the article put Howard in a “false light” that “would be highly offensive to a reasonable person.” The jury decided that Antilla’s article fit these criteria.

However, the jury rejected the defamation claim, finding the article did not convey a “false implication” that harmed the plaintiff.

Chapman expressed skepticism that the jury found in favor of Antilla on the defamation count but against her on the false light count. “That’s one of the things we’re going to take up with the court,” he said.

Howard’s attorney, Chuck Douglas, could not be reached for comment.

(Howard v. Antilla; Media Counsel: Bill Chapman, Concord) DB

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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