Legality versus morality. Journalism versus voyeurism. Public interest versus private business.
Last week’s lawsuit filed by ex-Channel 3 weather prognosticator John Fredericks against Channel 8 and reporter George Knapp touches on each point but winds up pointless.
Recap: Last November, a two-part Knapp report exposed Fredericks’ scary voice mail barrage aimed at a woman he met on an Internet dating site, triggering two police warnings — but stopping short of an arrest or stalking charges.
True, this column criticized the stories for reasons that still stand: Mega-creepy as the messages were as portrayed on-air and posted online — and as legitimately threatened as the woman felt — the stories exposed the embarrassing actions of a man who, nearly a year removed from being a minor local celebrity, was arguably no longer a public figure and had not been booked for any crime. As such, Fredericks shouldn’t have been subjected to the humiliation brought on by Channel 8.
(Which does not, as stated then, condone his ugly behavior.)
As reported by the R-J’s Doug McMurdo, Fredericks’ suit, filed in District Court, seeks to prevent Channel 8 from broadcasting any future stories or posting any Web site info about him. Under that court imposition — one we can’t imagine the court ever imposing — Fredericks could commit triple homicide in front of the Bellagio fountains on New Year’s Eve and be exempt from Channel 8 coverage. That’s absurd. (Though a judge always can modify such an order.)
Cases involving the limits of press freedom are a knotty thicket of legalese and standards always open to interpretation and exceptions. But Fredericks’ allegation that the coverage amounted to libel and defamation — the latter defined as a false accusation or malicious misrepresentation of words or actions — can be answered with exquisite simplicity: The story was true and the tapes authentic. Broadcast in poor taste based on questionable news judgment? Absolutely. But not, as Fredericks’ suit also reportedly claims, casting him in a “false” light. Bad, yes. False, no.
Privacy questions are murkier but still a crapshoot for Fredericks. Public figures are afforded less legal protection given their access to public forums — TV, radio, print — to return fire. (The law still lags on how the Internet fits in.) Fredericks seems to lack that now but, this humble column’s opinion aside, his years of daily TV exposure could cause the court to deem him a public figure, weakening his position.
Another issue: Did the stories serve a legit public interest? Knapp claimed time restrictions curtailed a planned examination of online dating dangers, but just playing the tapes could be considered a cautionary warning of public value by the court.
Verdict: The lawsuit’s a legal long shot.
Journalistically, Knapp and Channel 8 are better than this story, and that was the point of the original criticism: guilty of tabloid-ism in the first degree. Libel? Defamation? Doubtful.
Legally, John Fredericks is filing what will likely be a nonlawsuit over what should have been — at least to all mainstream journalists — a nonstory.
Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at email@example.com or 702-383-0256