The Gannett Company, owner of the Gallatin News Examiner and 90 other newspapers, quietly agreed last week to pay almost $1 million in a libel judgment stemming from an article published last year in the News Examiner.
The article included an in-house joke suggesting that Garrett (“Bubba”) Dixon Jr., then a student at Gallatin High School, enjoyed having oral sex with donkeys. When the joke accidentally made it into the next day’s paper, Dixon sued both the News Examiner and Gannett.
In April, a Sumner County jury awarded Dixon $800,000 in damages. High school soccer coach Rufus Lassiter, also mentioned in the story, got another $150,000. According to Dixon’s lawyer, Clint Kelly, the decision marked the first time Gannett itself has been held legally responsible for the libelous actions of one of its newspapers.
“I’m sure there will be an appeal,” a Gannett lawyer promised at the time.
But there wasn’twithout even a telephone call to ask if Dixon would accept a smaller amount if Gannett waived its right to appeal. Gannett’s attorney notified the trial court on Thursday, the deadline for filing an appeal, that the company had decided to pay the judgment in full. Among lawyers, that’s unheard of.
“It’s the weirdest case we’ve ever had,” said Kelly, who added that his client would have settled the suit prior to trial for as little as $200,000 but that Gannett never offered Dixon anything. Kelly said Gannett executives tried to “micro-manage” the case from company headquarters in Arlington, Va., and that, as a result, the newspaper’s case was “poorly managed” from beginning to end.
Barbara Wall, a Gannett vice president and in-house attorney who supervised the Dixon case, declined comment.
Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, also owns The Tennessean. Both the News Examiner and The Tennessean reported the libel incident and covered the trial in April. As of Tuesday, however, neither paper had published anything about the settlement.
Gannett for sale?
Even $18 billion corporations like Gannett don’t write million-dollar checks lightly. And it’s unlikely that the company, after refusing even to discuss a pretrial settlement, has suddenly developed a guilty conscience over the Bubba Dixon incident.
Three weeks ago, something similar happened in Cincinnati. The Gannett-owned Cincinnati Enquirer settled a potential libel suit for a reported $10 million-$15 million, published a front-page apology to Chiquita, the banana company, and retracted an 18-page series of articles accusing Chiquita of various questionable and illegal business practices.
The odd thing is that the paper never said what, if anything, in the series wasn’t true.
Although some stories were based, in part, on allegedly stolen voice-mail messages, others were based on firsthand interviews. And according to The Wall Street Journal, the Enquirer’s lawyers, along with top Gannett executives, knew of the reporter’s tactics and approved his conclusions.
Now, suddenly, the reporter has been fired; the Enquirer and Gannett refuse to comment; and Chiquita executives, while claiming total victory over the newspaper, find themselves under federal investigation over some of the practices described in the series.
Once again, it seems Gannett wanted a quick settlement, regardless of the price in dollars or credibility.
So what’s Gannett up to? Maybe they just don’t like lawsuits. On the other hand, anyone thinking of buying the giant media chain would be wary of outstanding libel suits and would likely pressure Gannett to get rid of problems like Dixon and Chiquita before a deal is cut.
Gannett’s public relations department in Arlington said any speculation of Gannett’s pending sale would be “inaccurate.”
Tom Wood replies
The first sentence of an item in last week’s column said magazine publisher Tom Wood “knows, really knows” that an advertisement in Business Nashville promoting a wrinkle-reducing treatment is “deceptive.” According to Wood, that’s incorrect.
Wood acknowledges that the patient shown in the ad was told to crease her forehead in the “before” picture but to relax for the “after” shot. As a result, the photos make the treatment appear more effective than it really is. However, Wood says the pictures were “not intended to deceive” and are “not deceptive.”
Wood also publishes Nashville Life, where the ad is scheduled to run again next month.
When the Metro Police Department arrested a Vanderbilt doctor last week and charged him with molesting young patients at the hospital, the cops wouldn’t release a mug shot. Police spokesman Don Aaron explained that news of the doctor’s arrest might prompt other victims to come forward and that they might be asked to pick out the defendant from a photo lineup. In a press release, Aaron explained to the local media that he didn’t want the lineup tainted by the possibility that the victims had seen the defendant’s mug shot on television.
Friday night, Channels 2, 4, and 5 all led with the Vanderbilt story, but only Channel 5 showed a picture of the defendant, apparently obtained from the defendant’s driver’s license. The station’s decision may have compromised future lineups in the case.
Aaron won’t criticize Channel 5. Since the police aren’t really sure whether other victims exist, Aaron said he didn’t directly ask the stations not to broadcast any pictures of the doctor. “At least they didn’t show a recent photo,” he said.
Channel 5 news director Mike Cutler declined comment, as he usually does.
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