TV stations win dismissal of libel, privacy suit by unreachable landlord
WASHINGTON, D.C.–Two television stations were not negligent in broadcasting police statements that the owner of an apartment building was under investigation without simultaneously broadcasting his response, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals held in early June.
The court affirmed a lower court’s decision to grant two television stations summary judgment in a libel case.
WTTG and WRC-TV reported in 1989 that Solomon Kendrick, who owned an apartment building known to be the site of illegal drug activities, was under police investigation for tipping off his tenants that there would be a police raid on the premises. The stations also reported that tenants said Kendrick threatened to evict them if they complained of housing code violations.
Reporters tried to reach Kendrick for comment before airing the story but were unsuccessful.
In March 1990, Kendrick filed suit against the stations for defamation, libel, slander, false light and invasion of privacy. Summary judgment was awarded to the television stations by the trial court.
On appeal, Kendrick argued that the media were negligent because they failed to contact him before broadcasting police statements about him and, once they did contact him, did not air his reply in a timely manner. He cited a statement of principals by the American Society of Newspapers and the 1923 American Society of Newspaper Editors Code of Ethics to back his arguments. Both codes state that reporters should publish an accused person’s response at the earliest opportunity.
The appeals court ruled that the industry codes of ethics could not be applied to determine negligence because Kendrick did not provide proper source citations for the codes, nor did he show through expert testimony that journalists customarily adhere to the codes. Further, Kendrick did not dispute the journalists’ statements that they made good faith efforts to reach him for comment. Therefore, the court stated that it must rely on the statements of the journalists that their actions were customarily acceptable within their field.
Kendrick also contended that the media should have considered previous news stories which cast doubt on the reliability of Deputy Police Chief Jimmy Wilson, who told reporters Kendrick was under investigation. Wilson was reportedly once officially reprimanded for impropriety and once criticized for his handling of an investigation of police leaks. But the court ruled that journalists cannot be expected to question the “credibility of high-ranking police sources because of highly speculative reasons based on earlier, unrelated events.” (Kendrick v. Fox Television, et. al.; Media Counsel: Kevin T. Baine, Washington, D.C.)