Pro wrestling has landed a $3.5 million smackdown on an Alexandria-based watchdog group that falsely claimed televised wrestling's orchestrated mayhem was responsible for the deaths of four children.
The Parents Television Council, which frequently rails against sex and violence on TV, agreed to pay World Wrestling Entertainment the money and issued an apology in an out-of-court settlement of the defamation lawsuit brought by WWE. "It was wrong to have stated or implied that the WWE or any of its programs caused these tragic deaths," wrote PTC founder and President L. Brent Bozell III in a lengthy public statement released yesterday.
WWE (formerly the World Wrestling Federation) sued the Parents Television Council in November 2000 after the PTC and a related group, the Media Research Council, claimed that children were committing violent acts after watching wrestling on TV.
The PTC publicized the claims in a fundraising video, "National Campaign to Clean Up TV Now!," that included unauthorized clips of WWE broadcasts, such as "Smackdown!" on the UPN network. The tape was part of a PTC effort to persuade advertisers not to sponsor the show, according to court documents.
The group also sent representatives to the annual meetings of various corporations to confront executives of companies that sponsored wrestling shows. "They would ask, 'Why do you want to advertise on programs that are responsible for killing children?' " said Linda McMahon, WWE's chief executive, in an interview yesterday. "That was pretty brutal."
At one point, the PTC claimed that various advertisers had stopped sponsoring "Smackdown!" even though those companies were never advertisers, a federal judge found in reviewing the WWE suit last year.
Among other cases, the PTC helped publicize the "wrestling defense" of a 12-year-old Florida boy, Lionel Tate, who was on trial for murder. Lionel's attorney, Jim Lewis, claimed the boy had killed a 6-year-old playmate in 1999 after watching wrestling on TV and mimicking a move known as the "Stone Cold Stunner."
In fact, Lionel was watching cartoons before the crime. His new lawyers have acknowledged that the "wrestling defense" was "bogus," Bozell said in his statement yesterday. Lionel eventually became one of the youngest defendants convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to life without parole.
McMahon said her company tried to supply Bozell and his organization with "correct information" about wrestling's impact on viewers but that the PTC campaign continued until WWE filed suit, alleging 13 instances of defamation, copyright infringement and interference with prospective business relations.
A New York judge rejected PTC's motion to dismiss the lawsuit in June 2001. The suit was set to go to trial on Sept. 9.
As part of the settlement, Bozell has agreed to meet with some of the WWE advertisers his group targeted and personally explain his apology.
PTC attorney Thomas Leghorn said the wrestling group originally sought $55 million in its lawsuit. He said the settlement amount -- which will be paid by PTC's insurer -- "is closer to covering [the WWE's] legal expenses."
But McMahon -- the wife of WWE Chairman and sometime wrestler Vince McMahon -- disputed this characterization. "There haven't been many cases of cash awards in this amount," she said.
Calls to Bozell, a syndicated newspaper columnist, were returned by a spokeswoman for the organization, Elizabeth Baggett. She said PTC would have no comment beyond Bozell's 900-word apology, which is posted on the PTC's Web site (www.parentstv.org).
The PTC claims 700,000 members, although that figure appears to be the cumulative number who've signed up since its founding in 1995 and includes those who pay no dues. The organization has frequently taken out full-page ads in newspapers urging people to send in contributions and to join its effort to restore the wholesome "family hour" to prime-time TV.
Until his death in 2000, Steve Allen was the PTC's public spokesman. Its advisory board currently includes Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), former education secretary William Bennett, singers Pat Boone, Naomi Judd and Billy Ray Cyrus and entertainers Jane Seymour and Tim Conway.
The group claims responsibility for driving sponsors away from many television programs, including Fox's "Temptation Island" and "Boston Public," and for eliminating some of the "objectionable" content of others, such as CBS's "Big Brother."
In April 2001 the group released a report suggesting that pro wrestling programs were toning down some of their sexual and violent content following the PTC's campaign.