Did The Union “bury lede” in publisher’s $1 million lawsuit against citizen?

On March 5, this blog reported that Jeff Ackerman, the publisher/editor of The Union, has filed a $1 million civil lawsuit against Jim Knight, the golf pro of Lake Wildwood, alleging “bodily injury and emotional distress” involving an incident that occurred at the newspaper on Oct. 20.

According to Knight’s lawyer and law enforcement, Knight was the father of the girl whom Ackerman mentioned in his column that morning as having allegedly “died of a herion overdose one recent Sunday morning.” (There was no attribution to this statement in Ackerman’s column or use of any qualifying word, such as “alleged”).

“This is a small town and you hear things,” Ackerman wrote. “It’s tough to keep a 17-year-old’s death by heroin overdose a secret, try as some might to put a pretty picture on it.”

The exorbitant monetary claim “adds insult to injury” of a grieving father, Knight’s lawyer told me, adding that a column Ackerman wrote about the death of his daughter “caused and contributed to the happening of the incident.”

Ackerman’s lawyer also told me the actual amount of damages will be according to proof. I interviewed both lawyers, and I also posted the lawsuit online. My report generated much discussion, including 55 online comments.

To me, the incident was news in our community and raised some important journalistic issues: Ackerman’s judgment in mentioning a minor’s recent death in a broader article about heroin use (with unattributed details); The Union’s decision not to write about the lawsuit; and the conflict of interest between an editor also being the publisher (which I’ve raised before) in overseeing news coverage. Since then, longtime Swift manager Peter Kostes has joined the paper, as “circulation director/managing editor.”

The initial column raised many of the same issues in the reader’s comments.

I also wondered why the other local media — including KNCO, Yubanet.com, the Nevada City Advocate and KVMR — were not reporting the case. Some of them had been contacted by family and friends of Knight about the incident, according to postings on Facebook.

This weekend, The Union decided to write about the incident. “An incident at The Union’s offices involving The Union Publisher Jeff Ackerman and a member of the public has gained attention in the local community. The matter is now in the hands of the legal system. As a matter of policy, I want to assure the community that the publisher will not be involved in any oversight or reporting of the matter,” said Bob Brown, president of Swift Communications, The Union’s owner.

In a comment on this blog, court reporter Liz Kellar previously had defended The Union’s decision not to write about the case: “We have been waiting for the DA to file charges. At that time we will be covering the case.” But it went ahead and wrote the article anyway — I presume because of the public inquiries Brown referred to:

The Union’s account this weekend, however:

•Did not state that the 17-year-old girl Ackerman mentioned in his column was Knight’s daughter until well into the “jump page.” (It was first mentioned in paragraph 12). “Knight told (Grass Valley police) he was upset by the publication of an allegation regarding another daughter’s death,” it read.

•It did not include a statement from Knight’s lawyer until well toward the end (paragraph 24).

•Did not mention the column “was the precipitating factor in the confrontation” until paragraph 30.

•Instead, the first part of the article quoted from staff members at The Union and The Union’s lawyers about the incident at the newspaper’s offices.

The “news play” of the story also was inconsistent: Though on the front page of the newspaper and “below the fold,” the article is not on the front door of The Union’s website this morning — where the community can weigh in on the issue.

Some other details are worth noting: The claim in the initial legal documents on file at the courthouse listed damages of $1 million. The Union is reporting damages of $1.5 million. The Union did not link to documents in the case online, as it has in other legal cases.

The DA told me the police report in this case was *not* public information. But The Union is quoting from the police report in its account. The newspaper said it got the police report from its law firm.

To be sure, this is a difficult topic to write about. But besides the details of the assault itself, a central issue is Ackerman’s judgment.

County District Attorney Cliff Newell has not decided whether to press charges. “I have to analyze the situation and come to a decision whether it’s in the best interest of the public and the best interest of justice to charge the case,” Newell said in The Union’s account.

Warning to commenters: This is a sensitive topic. Please respond accordingly, with no personal attacks and remain on topic. Thank you.

Author: jeffpelline

Jeff Pelline is a veteran editor and award-winning journalist - in print and online. He is publisher of Sierra FoodWineArt magazine and its website SierraCulture.com. Jeff covered business and technology for The San Francisco Chronicle for 12 years, and he was a founding editor and Editor of CNET News for eight years, among other positions. Jeff has a bachelor's degree from UC Berkeley and a master's from Northwestern University. His hobbies include sailing, swimming, and trout fishing in the Sierra.

30 thoughts on “Did The Union “bury lede” in publisher’s $1 million lawsuit against citizen?”

  1. My heart is with the grieving dad. I think that anyone can imagine what losing a child is like. Then multiply the pain you imagine by about a million and that’s what it does feel like. To read anything insensitive and gossipy about the death of your child in the local paper would be like having water poured down your throat when you are already drowning.

    I’m not condoning any alleged violence, but I can understand the depth of the pain involved on the grieving dad’s part.

    As to how the Union should cover the lawsuit, it is a good thing if the articles about it are written from outside the circle of the publisher’s immediate employees since the publisher is the one bringing suit.

    “The DA told me the police report in this case was not public information. But The Union is quoting from the police report in its account.” I think this is the worst offense Jeff P cited.

    Decorum prevents me from going into further detail of what I really think of this whole situation in this forum.

    1. Gail,
      You are right: The case of a nonpublic police report being published and the law firm’s role in releasing it to the newspaper is worth exploring — raising both ethical and legal issues.

  2. Chris,
    For the record, this article is not on the front door of theunion.com. In fact, every front-page story in the print newspaper is on the front door of theunion.com (along with others) — except this one. You have to click on a section link to find it. The front page of the website is supposed to mirror the front page of the newspaper — and usually does.

  3. Most journalists recognize that their words have power, and they’re trained to use that power fairly and responsibly. The rules don’t change all that much when switching between news writing and opinion columns, either; you’re supposed to get your facts straight and show some empathy and understanding for the subjects you’re writing about. On the latter point, Ackerman’s column failed miserably, and the rants attributed to him on this blog show the same overall lack of judgment.

    I have no doubt that Ackerman intended to highlight the problem of heroin use in Nevada County, but the road to journalistic hell is paved with such good intentions. In essence, he turned the dead girl into the poster child for the whole junkie scene up here, and the father had (and still has) every right to be outraged.

    Now, some would qualify that statement by saying that Ackerman didn’t deserve to get smacked down for writing what he did, but Lord help us all if they trot out the First Amendment as a defense in this case. It’s not even close. To a grieving father, Ackerman’s words were fighting words, and if he’d said them anywhere other than the newspaper, the ensuing shoving match would have been as predictable as this one — and equally avoidable, had Ackerman taken a more compassionate tack in his writing. Whatever smackdown he got was richly deserved.

    Civil law is no refuge from the law of karma, Mr. Ackerman; take your licks like a man and drop your stupid lawsuit. A belated show of respect and humility is better than none.

  4. No kudos to Michael Green. He had some good points until he added this line: “Whatever smackdown he got was richly deserved.”

    No one deserves to be assaulted.

    You are promoting violence. Shame on you.

  5. Chris, when I start to see you speak out against explicit and implicit calls for violence perpetrated by conservative talk show hosts, legislators, and tea party activists, I’ll take your comments more seriously because you’ll have some credibility.

  6. Again, posters, most notably Mr. Howard, have presumed guilt prior to determination of fact. If one is to believe “the other side” of the story – then it was Mr. Ackerman, who by laying hands on or pushing – that was in fact the instigator.
    The leap to “promoting violence’ is ridiculous. Get off of your high horse and then explain exactly what it was that Ackerman was promoting? It would be too easy to make a counter- argument that Ackerman promoted violence in violating the sanctity of this family’s privacy and right to mourn without invasion with that heinously tasteless column.

    So, Kudos to Mr. Green. I agree with his letter wholeheartedly.

  7. Bob . . .
    Any acceptance of violence is unacceptable, period.
    I don’t understand the comparison to the Ackerman comment.
    We can find just as many stupid statements made on the left as on the right.
    I’m afraid you don’t understand the mood of this country right now.

  8. Chris, I will be happy to have you explain the mood of the country to me. Please continue. I am ready to listen.

  9. Yeah, we’re only engaged in two wars – nothing violent ’bout that, eh?
    If you live – if you eat, then you are involved in “violence” on some level. If you live in a home, drive a car, the computer you use – all extraction is violence.

    So, if it’s totally unacceptable, then I expect you won’t be on this planet in present form for much longer.

  10. Jeff P . . .

    At the end of your post, you wrote . . . “Please respond accordingly, with no personal attacks”

    Then why are responders allowed to attack Mr. Ackerman — “Whatever smackdown he got was richly deserved.”

    No assault is “deserved”

    None of you can justify that . . . we can certainly debate whether the column was appropriate or how The Union reported on the incident, but to call an assault “deserved”, come on.

    1. I don’t think he deserved it, but he also doesn’t deserve to be a journalist — at least with such influence — any longer. Which probably explains the Kostes and Brown training wheels. (By the way, does the paper have to call Reno for permission whenever it plans to cover the Ackerman/Knight case? How does that work?)

      1. Ms. Liz Kellar — that one was for you. You shed light on the paper’s thinking before, about waiting till criminal charges are filed before even covering the incident. What now? Who will oversee your coverage now?

  11. Chris, I think posters get a bit emotional and use words and phrases that they wouldn’t use if they weren’t in the moment. I do this sometimes but I try to stay level. I agree that we should not condone or call for violence, whether implicit or explicit. I think you are selective in your comments and that draws my ire because you divert from the main point. But, getting back to Michael Green’s main point in his post, I think that Mr. Ackerman should show compassion and better judgement and drop the suit against Mr. Knight. He should show community leadership and reach out to Mr. Knight and his family and help them.

  12. Some assaults are deserved or self-inflicted. To claim moral absolutes to the contrary is to ignore how people behave in real life. From barroom brawls to domestic disputes to invasions of foreign countries, we make value judgments all the time about whether acts of violence are necessary, legally defensible or — in some cases — worthy of praise.

    I’m hardly encouraging violence by suggesting Ackerman’s column was perceived as “fighting words” by the father, and that Ackerman bears responsibility for what transpired after it was published, both professionally and personally.

    Here are some observations as a former journalist who once worked for Swift Communications, as did Mr. Pelline and many other fine journalists who got shown the door for assorted reasons. They address only the actions of Ackerman and Swift management, not the other fine folks who work at what historically has been a good newspaper.

    “Did The Union “bury lede” in publisher’s $1 million lawsuit against citizen?” File that headline under “duh,” Jeff; it’s asked and answered by the facts you present. We’re talking about a potentially criminal act that occurred on the newspaper premises and/or an act that’s central to an active civil case. That story and future stories no doubt will be vetted by Swift attorneys, and that’s OK so long as they don’t omit material facts. (Side note: They probably got the police report because the paper is party to the investigation, as is the father, and only the involved parties are entitled to the report. It’ll show up someday.)

    What’s not OK is how long it took The Union to publish the story after the suit was filed, and the community is due an explanation about Ackerman’s role (if any) in deciding if and when the story should appear. Running the story immediately after the lawsuit was filed would be standard practice in most newsrooms, and the publisher’s prominence in the community would land the story on A1 by default. A delay of a week or two is understandable, given legal concerns, but here we are at the end of March. It defies logic and accepted journalistic standards, and Swift HQ still has some explaining to do on that point.

    Having re-read Ackerman’s column, though, I’m a lot less concerned with the lawsuit story than the scant coverage in The Union about the girl’s death itself and the legal proceedings that followed, if any. It would have been water under the bridge had not Ackerman made the girl Exhibit A in his very public rant about heroin use. What Ackerman knew (or thought he knew), and when he knew it (or thought he knew it), shaped the content and tone of his writing. In the lede of his column, it seems he assumes facts not in evidence at the time:

    “A 17-year-old Penn Valley girl died of a heroin overdose one recent Sunday morning, and four days later Grass Valley police raided a home on Doris Drive, where they arrested 10 people for selling, using or trying to buy heroin.

    “I connect the two because I think there’s a connection.”

    I wasn’t able to find a story on TheUnion.com beyond one that explained a man had been arrested following his girlfriend’s overdose on heroin. Comments on Ackerman’s column, the first mention I could find that the girl had died, indicate that the autopsy was inconclusive and that no drugs were found in her system. No story that the girl had died, no indication whether heroin was to blame, no mention that an autopsy was conducted, and no follow-up story on the criminal charges, if any, that the boyfriend faced after further investigation by the DA’s office. If anyone has links to such coverage, the dates they appeared along with their content could add some valubale context to how Ackerman’s column should properly be viewed.

    “I connect the two because I think there’s a connection.”

    That’s one big, huge, inexcusable leap of logic, but even if it were true, what business is it of Ackerman’s to connect the dots? Newspapers are normally much more careful about describing alleged criminal acts and the people suspected of committing them, relying primarily on law enforcement accounts. “This is a small town and you hear things” doesn’t come close to exercising due diligence.

    Lumping the girl together with the drug house that was raided goes way beyond editorial license. At its best, it’s a clumsy and crude premise upon which to base an opinion column. At its worst, it’s an abandonment of journalistic standards that may be serious enough to sustain a claim for libel. Has anyone — The Union, police, district attorney — established a connection between the girl’s death and the drug house, or stated publicly that there is none? Somebody, anybody, throw us a bone here and give us an update about what truly happened.

    In summary:

    – It’s not advocating violence to state that Ackerman got what he deserved. Words have both power and consequences, and the publisher got a refresher course about what happens when you push people too far. If taking some personal pleasure in the outcome makes me a bad person, that’s a character flaw I’m willing to admit.

    – Serious questions remain about the timing and content of The Union’s coverage of Ackerman’s lawsuit. Among them, when was Swift management brought into the loop? If they were party to the publication delay, as seems likely, their assurances that Ackerman won’t be involved in future editorial decisions about the story should fall on deaf ears. Who’s watching the watchdogs?

    – More serious questions remain about the facts surrounding the girl’s death, the criminal case involving the boyfriend, the presumed connection between the drug house and the girl’s death, and Ackerman’s handling of the newsroom as the whole sorry story blew up in his face. Ironically, his own lawsuit against the father may give us the first glimpse at some of those answers, but there are sources that exist outside the newspaper. Who’s got answers?

    – Speaking of lawsuits, libel claims are tough to prove these days, but what the hell. Ackerman’s legal offensive is every bit as objectionable as the column that precipitated the confrontation. Were I the attorney representing the girl’s family, I’d throw in intentional infliction of emotional distress, which involves a different threshold of proof, and countersue for the office incident for good measure. And I’d expect to read about it all in The Union, which has served Nevada County quite well through the years apart from recent lapses in judgment.

    1. Wow. Keen analysis infused with therapeutic schadenfreude.

      Half your questions won’t be answered, Michael. Ackerman’s paper is so intermingled with the tragedy that he won’t be able to properly cover it — and can’t be trusted to. The lead reporter on this case has already shown confusion about how to cover it, and now it appears directives are coming out of Reno — or from Kostes, Ackerman’s training wheels.

  13. He’s done it again. I think this community would be a better place with you as a local reporter. On the other hand I hope that being free from the Union was a positive move. Somehow I can’t imagine it not being positive. Thank you for your terrific insight. Do you have any insight on how to lobby Swift for a better publisher?. I think we can only move up!

  14. If this is an example of the type of thoroughness in his reporting that Michael Green provided along with Jeff Pelline’s obvious skills in reporting and editing, then the gap in journalistic quality is highly noticeable in what The Union is today compared with what it seemed to in the past.

    Michael’s posting had my complete attention as he so thoroughly outlined for me, the reader, the host of unanswered questions related to this incident. The post made the concerns expressed by Jeff P. come alive and I am glad that Michael took the time to explain the story behind the story.

  15. This is why blogging will eventually overcome newspapers. We will come to expect quality writing . Bravo to Michael and to Jeff for making the forum available.

  16. Jeff P. – starting to read Sacramento Connects on Sac Bee site. Again, congratulations on being included in the Sac Bee blog roll. We’re fortunate to have local qualified journalists who blog and provide points of view on local events and people. Hopefully, this will improve the overall quality of the blogs and the news and provide for a more informed community.

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