WorldNetDaily On Trial
WND hasn't told its readers the full story of the libel lawsuit filed against it by a Tennessee businessman.
By Terry Krepel
WorldNetDaily has regularly used a libel suit filed against it by a Tennessee car dealer to paint itself as a victim and a champion of the First Amendment.
The lawsuit was filed against WND and others by Clark Jones of Savannah, Tennessee, a car dealer who was accused in a series of articles WND ran prior to the 2000 presidential election that accused Democratic candidate Al Gore of purportedly intervening to halt an investigation of a relative. In one article, Jones was described as a "suspected drug dealer." Jones denies the allegation.
Also named in Jones' lawsuit are Charles Thompson II and Tony Hays, the authors of the series; the Center for Public Integrity; various media outlets in Tennessee that reprinted or promoted the articles; and Rebecca Hagelin, at the time WND director of communications (and now vice president for communications and marketing at the conservative Heritage Foundation). Jones is seeking a total of $165 million in damages -- $15 million in compensatory damages in $150 million in punitive damages. Jones has amended the lawsuit twice to cover statements after the filing of the original lawsuit, including an October 2003 column by WND editor Joseph Farah in which he repeated the claim against Jones.
WND's reporting on the lawsuit has largely been self-aggrandizing and highly selective, portraying Jones as a "Gore crony" and itself as a defender of the truth and the freedom of the press. Farah has insisted (without citing any evidence to back it up): "Understand that this lawsuit would be dropped in a flat second if Al Gore wanted it to be dropped."
WND is obviously too close to the story to tell the full truth to its readers. But an exclusive ConWebWatch review of court documents in the case reveals what WND won't report.
Center for Public Integrity
One role that has not been publicly discussed is that of the Center for Public Integrity. While WND has noted that CPI is one of the defendants in the lawsuit, it has not mentioned why.
CPI funded much of the reporting that Hays and Thompson did, paying stipends to the reporters. According to a deposition by Hays, CPI left the project in mid-2000 because of disagreements about "the length of the articles, what material was going to be included in the articles." However, CPI senior fellow Knut Royce -- who worked with Hays and Thompson in developing the stories -- said in his deposition that "what we had was an interesting tale perhaps of value [f]or Tennessee readers, but we didn't have a story that the Center would be the adequate forum for." Royce added: "The biggest determinant was that the main focus to begin with in the project was Al Gore. And the bottom line, we just didn't have Al Gore."
CPI gave Hays and Thompson possession of their work and encouraged them to find an outlet for it, which they found a couple months later when Accuracy in Media published one article; WND then published the entire series. Royce said in his deposition that Hays and Thompson were instructed to "make sure the Center for Public Integrity is not part of what you're now doing, that you don't tell people that this is work product of the Center of Public integrity. In other words, this is your stuff, sell it to whoever, you know, wants to buy it, but we're not part of what you guys are doing."
WND has used the CPI connection to try and distance itself from Hays and Thompson's reporting. A July 2004 affadavit signed by Farah stated that "WND never gathered or attempted to gather any of the information reported in any of the news articles" -- even though it had interjected throughout the series that sources "talked to WND" or "told WND" their statements -- and that it "purchased the use of the already-completed news articles from Mr. Hays/Mr. Thompson."
WND also apparently never fact-checked the series, according to the affadavit: "No WND employee or agent of any kind ever initiated telephone or email contact from Oregon or any other place into Tennessee, for the purpose of gathering information for or in connection with preparation or verification of the content of the news articles." This appears to contradict WND's claim in a 2006 article that it "has made every effort to ensure that its reporting in this series - and in everything it has covered was fair, honest, truthful, balanced and accurate." (A November 2003 filing stated that Hays and Thompson were paid "a nominal sum for each article ... said sum never exceeding Two Hundred Dollars ($200) for each.")
The affadavit also claimed:
With respect to the 2000 presidential election, WND expressed no corporate editorial opinion as to whether voters should cast their vote for any candidate in opposition to any other candidate; particularly, WND expressed no corproate editorial opinion with respect to whether Albert Gore, Jr. or George W. Bush was the more suitable candidate to hold the office of President.
This is disingenuous at best. As ConWebWatch has noted, the day before the 2000 election, WND's commentary page carried no fewer than nine articles that were either anti-Gore or pro-Bush. Moreover, Farah -- who, as founder, CEO and editor of WorldNetDaily, can be credibly described as its "corporate" voice -- wrote in an Oct. 25, 2000, column that "There are at least a thousand good reasons not to vote for Al Gore for president," stated that "I have told you over and over again that Al Gore is unfit for the presidency" and asserted that "he will turn the presidency into a kind of neo-paganistic ayatollah-like system of oppression from which this country will never recover." An Oct. 4, 2000, Farah column called Gore "a criminal, pure and simple. He's a political charlatan, a huckster out of the same mold as Clinton." And in an Sept. 22, 2000, column, Farah called Gore "truly evil."
Looks like somebody has, in fact, expressed a "corproate editorial opinion with respect to whether Albert Gore, Jr." is a "suitable candidate to hold the office of President."
Further, it has bragged about the series' alleged effect on the 2000 election: A June 2001 article stated that "WorldNetDaily’s uncompromising series on Gore and his cronies, such as Clark Jones, arguably played a major factor in Gore’s loss, according to some Tennessee political observers," while a June 2007 article bragged that a new book on Hillary Clinton cited the series as having "played a role in Gore's loss" in 2000. That also appears to conflict with WND's affadavit claim that it had no "corproate editorial opinion" about Gore.
It seems that WND can't decide whether to take full credit for running the series or thrown Hays and Thompson under the bus by asserting that it merely regurgitated what they wrote. Presumably, WND can't do both.
WND has engaged in numerous procedural issues in the case, such as trying to get itself and Hagelin removed from the lawsuit. In contrast to WND articles attacking the justice system in Hardin County, Tenn., where the suit was filed and where Jones operates car dealerships, as "a labyrinth of potential conflicts of interest and partisan politics" -- and, thus, a threat to the First Amendment -- WND was making a less inflammatory argument in court: that a state circuit court in Tennessee had no authority over a company headquartered in Oregon or a director of communications who lived in Virginia. Judges who had declared ties to Gore or Jones have recused themselves from the case, and it is being heard by a judge from outside Hardin County.
As his "anti-obscenity advocate" history suggests, Bailey is apparently not above pulling legal and verbal shenanigans. A July 17, 2006, Memphis Commercial Appeal editorial endorsing candidates for local judicial candidates chose the incumbent, D'Army Bailey, for a circuit court seat in which Parrish was a challenger: "Parrish questions Bailey's judicial performance and ethics. However, we have to seriously question the ethics of a challenger who uses a case he has before Bailey as a campaign vehicle to attack the judge." A June 14, 2006, Memphis Flyer article had the details:
The 11-page affidavit is attached to a routine plaintiff’s motion in a Circuit Court case in which Parrish is one of the attorneys. The affidavit, however, is already drawing attention in the legal community.
Parrish tried to pull a similar stunt in the Jones lawsuit. He filed a "request to admit" that since Jones "contributed money to" and "showed support for the efforts of Community Partners," a "grassroots citizens groups formed for the stated purpose of combating drug trafficking and use in Hardin County, Tennessee," it is therefore true that "Jones had a reputation circulated among some persons in Hardin County, Tennessee that portrayed Jones as a person involved in illicit drugs."
A July 26, 2006, WorldNetDaily article marked the first time in 3 1/2 years that WND had written a news article about the lawsuit. Based on the links at the bottom of the article, this is the first news article that WND has published on the case since December 2002.
Unsurprisingly, the article is also heavy on pro-WND spin. The headine calls it a "free-press lawsuit," and the only people apparently contacted in connection with the article are Parrish and Farah. Ironically, Farah is quoted as saying that "WorldNetDaily has made every effort to ensure that its reporting in this series - and in everything it has covered was fair, honest, truthful, balanced and accurate."
Of course, if WND was genuinely acting in a "fair, honest, truthful, balanced and accurate" manner, there's one thing it would have done by now -- given Jones space to fully respond to the claims made in the articles and by WND. Instead, WND has done nothing beyond noting that Jones has "vehemently denied" the accusations.
In fact, Jones has done much more than deny the accusations. Jones' attorney submitted statements from two expert witnesses who examined the journalistic quality of the articles. The first -- Jeff South, a professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University -- reported that the articles "grossly violated the basic standards of care advocated by professional journalism organizations and practice in reputable newsrooms." South added that "there was an overuse of information without attribution or sources and a promiscuous use of unidentified sources. There was a gross failure to provide a reasonable opportunity for Clark Jones to respond to the allegations." While noting that WND has stated that it "controls the editorial processes and publication of its news stories," WND in this case "failed grossly in its oversight and editing processes and in its duty to prevent the publication of inadequate, unfair and unbalanced news stories. The WorldNetDaily editorial staff should have recognized the stories' serious flaws, corrected them if possible and, if not possible, should have stopped the story."
The second expert witness -- Dwight Teeter, former dean of the College of Communications at the University of Tennessee -- made similar observations: "WorldNetDaily.com holds itself out as a professional journalistic organization. Yet it allowed the publication of statements about wrongdoings attributed to Clark Jones which were attached to unnamed sources and allowed free floating use of the weasel word 'alleged' with no evidence presented that any official charges or allegations had been brought against Mr. Jones." Teeter added: "There are far too many vague attributions and too many uses of the word 'alleged' to be acceptable to any professional editor or news organization."
Both South and Teeter noted that Jones requested to have a court reporter present when he was interviewed by Hays and Thompson, a request the reporters declined. South stated that it was "evidence of an intentional refusal to obtain the accurate response of the person being impugned."
Such a one-sided story in which WND has a vested interest to spin to its benefit -- not to mention begging for money for its "legal defense fund" at the end -- is, by definition, not "fair, honest, truthful, balanced and accurate," a contradiction of Farah's alleged mandate.
How can WND possibly achieve such balance? One way is to post all legal documents in the case on its website along with the names of all contributors to its legal defense fund, as ConWebWatch has previously challenged WND to do. To date, WND has not responded to ConWebWatch's challenge.
That July 2006 WND article focused on another side issue -- the issue of whether Hays and Thompson should be forced to identify the anonymous sources used in the articles.
A Nov. 27, 2006, article continued to press WND's case in support of Hays and Thompson. The article also cited a case of dubious relevance to WND's role in the Jones lawsuit:
In a related development, the California Supreme Court has ruled that websites that publish inflammatory information written by others cannot be sued for libel. The court concluded that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 provides broad immunity from defamation lawsuits for people who publish information on the Internet that was gathered from another source.
The ruling leaves open for damages only the original source of the statement, the ruling concluded.
On the surface, this reads like WND's attempt to throw the reporters under the bus if Jones' libel suit is successful -- the article also claims that "WND only became aware of the writers after the articles already were completed." But it may also not be relevant. The case that resulted in this ruling involved a woman who posted an attack on two doctors written by someone to two Internet newsgroup sites. But there are two major differences between this case and the WND-Jones case:
If Farah is as proud of these articles as he claims he is, why is he looking to invoke immunity from printing them?
In a 2001 WND interview with then-WND talk-show host Geoff Metcalf, Thompson complained that a process server "threatened bodily harm and served me the wrong papers," adding, "He opened my house, threw the things in and said, 'You're served!' Now that's not good service anyway."
In fact, Thompson was actively avoiding being served with the lawsuit papers, even as he was demanding to be removed from the lawsuit by claiming he was never properly served with the papers.
A December 2001 filing by Jones' attorney described five attempts to serve Thompson, by mail and through process servers. It noted that a process server "attempted to serve Thompson on August 14, August 16, August 19, August 21, August 22, and August 24, 2001, but Thompson avoided service." Regarding a summons later mailed to Thompson, the filing noted, "The post office returned the envelope stamped 'Refused.'"
* * *
Per an August 2007 order, Jones' lawsuit is currrently scheduled to go to trial in March 2008. Will WND decide to become more honest with its readers about the lawsuit before then? Don't count on it.