Arizona's richest and most powerful newspaper publishing company has initiated a lawsuit which has to be unique in the history of journalsim. The proprietors of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette are suing another newspaper for libel. They are asking for $10 million in damages from a smaller (60,000 circulation) paper, The New Times Weekly, in an action which must stupify anyone interested in journalism.
The background of the suit is relatively simple. Management of the Republic and the Gazette have been having labor problems for several years. The fight with the Newspaper Guild, AFL-CIO, which is trying to get a contract, has been, to understate it, rather more than unpleasant. Thus, the small article which appeared in a February issue of The New Times Weekly is no more than you would expect. Under the headline, "Wiretapping Charged Against R & G," the first two paragraphs read:
"Wiretapping allegations apparently will be an issue in unfair labor charges to be filled this week against The Arizona Republican and the Phoenix Gazette.
"Sources said the Phoenix Newspaper Guild will contend in a complaint to the National Labor Relations Board that two newspapers eavesdropped on telephones of guild activists and officers. The accusation will be included, the sources said, in a broader charge that the two newspapers harassed Guild members with frequent and punitive reassignments."
The Guild did indeed file such charges with the NLRB, which ruled there was not enough evidence to substantiate them. At no point does the Times' article assert the charges were true.
Thus we have a major American daily newspaper suing another publication for printing a story that a third party will shortly file charges with an official government body. If the Republic and Gazette wins its case, you wonder how the editors are going to be able to put out their own newspapers. They won't even be able to report grand jury indictments without fear of being successfully sued for libel.
If the suit itself is amazing, there is one section of it which invites disbelief. This section asks for a judgement against a group of "John Does" and "Janes Does" "who communicated the libelous information published by New Times, Inc. and/or prepared or assisted in the preparation of the defamatory articles . . ." Put in simple language, we have a newspaper going into court, asking a judge to use his power to compel another newspaper to divulge the name of confidential news sources.
Regardless of whether or not any judge ever accedes to the request, nearly asking it does a serious disservice to American journalism. What is going to happen to cases all over the country where people are after news organizations to reveal the names of confidential news sources? When journalists say "no, that's against our professional ethics," the lawyers are going to counter, "Horsefeathers, the publishers of two major newspapers have asked a court to do exactly what we're asking. No generally agreed upon code of professional ethics exists."
One of the reasons libel suits are sometimes brought is not to win but to harass. After all, it takes time, money and grief to defend against them, so merely threatening such action can intimidate publications and journalists into silence. Things don't get printed which are true and ought to be printed because of the tsuris of a suit broght by a rich litigant who knows he's going to lose, but who also knows he's punishing you just by suing.
Only the executives at the Republic and the Gazette know what their motives are for bringing this suit. But whatever they are, filing the suit can only encourage other powerful people to intimidate an already-none-too-brave mass media by litigation.
The Republican and Gazette are a daily newspaper monopoly in Phoenix. A suit of this sort has the appearance of attempting to use monopoly power to withhold important information about a major institution from the community -- exactly what newspapers in a monopoly position are constantly accused of doing. Let's hope that journalists, and more importantly, publishers or newspapers, show the world this isn't true by coming to the aid of The New Times Weekly.