An editor for a New Jersey newspaper wrote a headline in 2005 indicating that two local stock traders had just been “arrested” for securities violations when in fact they were simply the targets of an SEC civil complaint.
Yesterday, the state supreme court decided that such carelessness wasn’t actionable.
“Although this case unquestionably involves sloppy journalism, the careless acts of a harried editor, the summary-judgment record before us cannot support a finding by clear and convincing evidence that the editor knowingly or in reckless disregard of the truth published the false teaser,” concluded the court in Durando v. The Nutley Sun.
The case involved the reputations of Ronald Durando and Gustave Dotoli, both residents of Nutley, New Jersey. In November 2005, the Securities and Exchange Commission filed a civil complaint in federal court against the two stock traders, charging them with various violations of federal securities laws in connection with an alleged “pump and dump” market manipulation scheme.
The story was reported accurately by The Record, a newspaper owned by the North Jersey Media Group. Since the story had a local angle, it was picked up by The Nutley Sun, another newspaper in the North Jersey Media Group chain.
Paul Milo, an editor for The Nutley Sun, obtained permission to reprint the article in the paper’s Dec. 8, 2005 edition. In preparing the article for publication, Milo wrote a front page teaser that said, “Local men arrested in ‘pump and dump’ scheme, page 11.” The mistake about Durando and Dotoli being arrested was not repeated on the page in which the article appeared.
The next day, the lawyer for Durando and Dotoli called the newspaper to point out the error and demand a retraction. The newspaper responded two weeks later by publishing a retraction on its front page, but by that time Durando and Dotoli had already sued the newspaper in state court for libel, false light and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress. The trial court dismissed the complaint.
Tuesday’s decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court affirmed that dismissal. The state high court simply concluded that the plaintiffs’ complaint failed to satisfy the actual malice standard for proceeding with a defamation claim against a news organization.
Critical to the court in its decision was the fact that the front-page teaser did not mention Durando and Dotoli by name.
“Any reader who turned to page eleven of the paper learned in paragraphs one and two of the article, even before they reached the names Durando and Dotoli in paragraph three, that the two men were subject to a civil complaint filed by the SEC,” the court observed.
More importantly, the court concluded that it was plain from the record that there was no malice at work here, and that the gaffe was an honest mistake made by an editor struggling to keep up with his typically busy work schedule.
“This record does not permit us to conclude that Milo’s professions – that he made a mistake – are inherently incredible or improbable,” the court said. “He was a harried editor, responsible for a staff of ten and reading hundreds of pieces of correspondence, racing to meet a printing deadline.”
In upholding the dismissal of the lawsuit against The Nutley Sun, the court took the opportunity to scold the newspaper for its mistake, saying it should take only “grim satisfaction” in the outcome.
“The primary objective of a free press is to promote the truth so that citizens will have a better understanding of current events and of the workings of their government,” the court said. “Falsehoods in an article that needlessly do harm to a person’s reputation do not advance that objective. Moreover, ‘shoddy and careless reporting that leads to the dissemination of false or misleading information is detrimental to the enlightenment of a free society.’”
– Pat Murphy