A client recently came to my firm needing immediate legal help to prevent a TV news station from airing an advertised “exposé” of his business (buying and re-selling items on the Internet via Amazon and eBay). A reporter for the news station had contacted him on Facebook and, citing alleged unresolved complaints from the Better Business Bureau, began a conversation asking how he planned to pay back consumers. My client responded fully and truthfully to the reporter in addressing, on a customer-by-customer basis, the reporter’s “facts” and sources, and provided documentary evidence supporting his side of the story. Because of that, and with some justification, he thought that the matter was resolved. Unfortunately, that was not the case. The reporter, apparently having already determined “the truth” beforehand, decided to disregard my client’s response to his inquiry and continued to develop his story accordingly. The reporter then taped and aired on a local news station a “teaser” of the upcoming story. The teaser did not identify my client or his business by name, but included sufficient factual details to make it clear that the upcoming story was indeed going to be about alleged fraud committed by his company. The story clearly would have had a devastating effect on the company, if not ruined it entirely – these days, once a negative story about an Internet company appears on the Internet (as this story would have, after airing on TV), the damage can be irreparable.
At this point, the client contacted my firm and provided me with all the communications between him and the reporter, as well as the supporting documents establishing that he and his company had done nothing wrong. My firm quickly wrote a letter to the attorney for the TV station and provided reasons why the story was not credible, as well as legal reasons why the station needed to conduct additional research prior to airing the story. This letter cited a very recent case from the Texas Supreme Court which sets out the parameters of what a news station may do and may not do and what type of action (or inaction) may subject it to potential liability. Neely v. Wilson, 56 Tex. Sup. J. 766, 2013 WL 324004, 2013 Tex. LEXIS 511 (Tex. June 28, 2013). Neely held that even if a story contains facts which are themselves substantially true, if those facts are distorted (“juxtaposed”) to convey an untrue negative image (“gist”), the story may still be actionable. The Court also held that a reporter or news station who knowingly repeats a defamation may also be liable for defamation – e.g., if a TV station airs a story in which someone else makes a false accusation that the reporter knows to be false, or if the reporter ignores credible information contrary to a false accusation.
The story for my client has a happy ending. My firm’s series of letters had the hoped-for result: the station decided not to air the story. Here is the wonderful e-mail my firm received:
For the time being, [TV Station] does not intend to broadcast a story about your client on the topic that has been the subject of our correspondence to date. If that changes, [TV Station] will contact your client.
I truly believe that if the business owner had not sought legal help, the outcome might have been very different. I am proud to have been able to help him and his company during this crisis. Their good names were protected.