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Blogger sued by newspaper

Wednesday, Jul 1, 2009

* Blogger Cal Skinner is being sued by the parent company of the Northwest Herald…

The civil lawsuit challenges Cal Skinner Jr.’s June 3 post on his political blog alleging that the newspaper received a multimillion dollar-loan from McHenry County government at submarket rates to prevent it from moving outside the county. It also challenges a comment that the loan was made “to put the paper in the back pocket of the Republican Party.”

Northwest Herald Publisher John Rung said Skinner’s assertions were “reckless and completely fabricated.”

“We are saddened and disappointed – although perhaps not surprised – that he would publish such malicious falsehoods,” Rung said. “His motives here are clear: By lying about our integrity and financial health, he is attempting to injure our business. Because of the severity and irresponsibility of his accusations, we feel that it is necessary to ensure that the truth becomes part of the public record.”

More

The lawsuit, filed in McHenry County Circuit Court, states that the newspaper never received a loan from the county, never contemplated moving out of the county, has never been in the back pocket of the McHenry County Republican Party and is not “in extremis.” […]

The newspaper company also contends that Skinner made the statements with “malice or ill will” because of its past stories detailing the former lawmaker’s contentious divorce and child custody battle.

I remember those “contentious divorce and child custody battle” stories well because I knew they were coming and had talked with the paper about them before and, I believe, after they were published. I wrote some pretty negative stories about Skinner based on those NW Herald pieces. I even reprinted one of them when Skinner decided to run statewide. Yet, Skinner blogs at Illinoize about state stuff on occasion, so it doesn’t appear that he still carries a total grudge against me.

* You can read the newspaper’s complaint by clicking here. From the complaint, here’s what Skinner actually wrote…

And, who could forget the multimillion loan to the Northwest Herald at sub-market rates?

I filed a Freedom of Information request for the details a couple of years and got nothing. Guess it’s time to try again.

In any event, the NW Herald was not an “in extremis” condition then.

The excuse for loaning the money was to keep the county newspaper from moving out of the county.

The real reason was to put the paper in the back pocket of the Republican Party. (Anyone want to deny the strategy worked?)

* From the complaint…

COUNT II – FALSE LIGHT

…The false statements about Plaintiff by Defendant place Plaintiff in a false light before the public, as purported “mouthpiece” for the Republican party, rather than as an award-winning member of the independent press.

It looks to me like Skinner overdid it. I often bash newspapers, but I can certainly see why this paper was upset. I would’ve been, too. But, really, are we now supposed to refer to the Northwest Herald only in the context of being an “award-winning member of the independent press”?

I think not.

There’s no denying that the paper’s editorial stance leans Republican and has done so for a very long time. That fact was pointed out to me this week during a conversation with the paper’s own attorney, Don Craven

Skinner also maintained that his comment on his political blog about the Northwest Herald being in the back pocket of the local Republican Party was an opinion protected from such lawsuits.

But Don Craven, an attorney for the printing company, disagreed.

“Statements of opinion are protected,” Craven said. “Statements of opinion which include defamatory facts are not protected.”

* Back to the complaint

Plaintiff is not now, and has never been ‘in extremis’ condition.

Here’s what Skinner wrote…

In any event, the NW Herald was not an “in extremis” condition then.

Craven told me Skinner was implying with that sentence that the paper is currently “in extremis.” I just don’t see that. I’ve read it over and over again, and I can’t see it. That allegation looks way over the line to me.

* And what about the claim that the loan was made to “keep the county newspaper from moving out of the county”? From the complaint

Plaintiff does not now and has not considered moving the NORTHWEST HERALD from McHenry County.

There are no public records which would support the statements published by Defendant.

But, as Pete Gonigam pointed out on his own blog

Skinner’s reply Monday included a copy of a 1985 county board resolution authorizing a $2.6 million Economic Development Revenue Bond… The resolution states its purpose as “increasing and retaining employment within (McHenry County’s) boundaries.”

* From the complaint…

Plaintiff has never been the recipient of a multi-million dollar loan from McHenry County at sub-market rates.

Plaintiff has never been the recipient of any loan, from any public body, at market or sub-market rates.

Skinner’s counter complaint, kindly forwarded to me by Pete Gonigam, reads thusly…

The loan transaction in question consisted of a $2.6 million bond issued and sold by the County of McHenry to the Dixon National Bank (the “Bond”) for the purpose of providing funds to finance the costs of acquisition, construction and equipping of a printing, warehousing and office facility….

The owner of the Project was Shawmor. The Project was leased to the Shaw Free Press Media, Inc.

But the paper didn’t get the loan directly from the county, so I see their point. Yet, is that enough to file a lawsuit? Then again

Newspaper attorney Don Craven said Skinner’s focus on the loan issue sidesteps what he sees as the larger issue: allegations the Northwest Herald is in the GOP’s back pocket.

“He’s offered no evidence to support that ludicrous statement,” Craven said.

Skinner’s statement may well have been ludicrous, but we’re treading on some dangerous turf here. I can’t think of a single newspaper that hasn’t accused some politician at one time or another of being in somebody’s back pocket - often with a whole lot of flimsy “evidence.” Glass houses, etc.

Then again, that was a pretty bold accusation leveled by Skinner, so he ought to put up or apologize.

* Back to the complaint…

The statements made by Defendant were intended to deter members of the public from purchasing the news products offered by Plaintiff, and to undercut the news products offered by Plaintiff.

Really? I shudder to think what’s gonna happen if Big Media starts suing bloggers who criticize their content and call into question their motives (like the media does to politicians, by the way).

* Skinner has been a thorn in that paper’s side for a very long time, so maybe they just got fed up and decided to whack back. I get that. I can even empathize.

But, man, that seems to me like a harsh way to do things. And bad karma to boot.

No comments on this one because we don’t need to fire anybody up who might already be fired up. Not that they would get fired up. Just sayin…

- Posted by Rich Miller        

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