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.