Two Salt Lake City television stations received some bad news from 3rd District Court last week $16 million worth of bad news.
KTVX officials learned they are being sued for $5 million by Salt Lake police officer David G. Madsen, who claims to have been libeled by reporter John Harrington in news stories that, according to the suit, held Madsen "up to ridicule and debasement, and otherwise besmirched his good name and reputation."And KSL found out that the owners of Foothill Financial Corp. have filed an $11 million lawsuit stemming from stories last April that they claim damaged their "integrity and business reputation."
At issue in the KTVX suit is Madsen's involvement last October in the shooting of Clemente Garcia after police chased him from his home on 13th East to a spot near Mountain Dell Reservoir. According to the suit, Harrington reported that Madsen had a poor record with the police department and was in fact in the process of being fired at the time of the shooting. It also claims that Harrington said Madsen violated department rules in the incident.
Madsen has since been cleared by the police department and the Salt Lake County attorney's office with regards to the matter. Hence the suit, which asks for $2 million for damages to the officer's reputation and $3 million for damages to his ability to perform his job and to his "safety and well-being."
The suit against KSL names Bonneville International Corp. (the station's ownership) generally and reporter Dave Thompson and anchors Shelley Thomas, Dick Nourse and Margaret Smoot specifically. It claims that the journalists "failed to act as reasonably prudent persons in the news media industry in ascertaining the truth or falsity" of their report that Foothill Financial was in trouble a report that prompted a run on Foothill's deposits, forcing owners Dick Prows and Robert Wood to sell out to Zions First National Bank later that same week.
According to the suit, "false, defamatory and misleading" reports were aired with "malice, with intent to injure and defame Foothill Financial." The suit also charges the station with "reckless or negligent disregard" and asks for $1 million in general damages, $5 million in special damages and $5 million in punitive damages against the station.
News directors at both stations refuse to talk about the specifics of their respective cases. But both KTVX's John Edwards and KSL's Spence Kinard indicate that their stations won't be looking for an out-of-court settlement. Or as Kinard said, "We're not going to get out the checkbook and say, `How much do you want?"'
"Our position is, if you're right you stand up for being right," said Edwards. "We believe we're in the right here."
Which is not to say there isn't some concern about the suits. "Those who have never been through this before are a little anxious," Kinard acknowledged. "It's highly unusual for anchors to be named in a suit like this, and so they're concerned."
Still, Kinard said a lawsuit doesn't prompt a lot of journalistic soul-searching in the news room. "We did all of that a year ago, when we aired the story," he said. "There's no need to go back and check the facts, because we did that back then."
Nor does it elicit a more cautious approach from reporters because, as Kinard said, "we're always cautious. Our number one value is accuracy. We don't need a lawsuit to remind us of our first priority."
What it does do, however, is give the stations a chance to send out a message to others considering filing suit against them. "If you think you've been wronged by us, you can challenge us," Edwards said. "But just know that if you do, we're going to fight you on it."
* ON THE TUBE TONIGHT: You have the advantage of me. As you read this, you are probably well aware of which two teams are playing in tonight's NCAA Championship Game (7 p.m., Ch. 5). But deadlines being what they are around here, I'm writing this on Friday, with no way of knowing who survived Saturday's semifinals. But back when the tournament pairings were announced I predicted Arizona would beat Duke in the championship game. Was I close? (And what a quandary for Arizona fans if the Wildcats are in the finals. ESPN is also scheduled to carry the Arizona-Arizona State Baseball Game tonight beginning at 6 and extending right on through the basketball game. Decisions, decisions.)
You may also have a tough decision to make if you are a basketball fan who also happened to enjoy last night's opening installment of Mario Puzo's The Fortunate Pilgrim (7 p.m., Ch. 2). But to tell you the truth, there's enough soap opera in this tale of family heartbreak and woe that if you pick up the conclusion as soon as the basketball game is over, you won't have much trouble figuring out what's going on.
A much tougher choice involves Japan (8 p.m., Ch. 7), the first episode of PBS's fine, fascinating, four-part series that examines how Japan's tradition-rich past contributes to its high-tech present and promising future. Jane Seymour narrates this informative series, but that isn't the only reason I recommend it highly. It's just good television. See for yourself.
Elsewhere: Burt Reynolds and Goldie Hawn are Best Friends (8 p.m., Ch. 4) who mess up their relationship by getting married; KBYU repeats its Scouts Say No To Drugs (8:30 p.m., Ch. 11) special; and KUED does the same with Street Life: The Invisible Family (9 p.m., Ch. 7), documenting Utah homelessness.
Looking Toward Tuesday: KUTV tackles a tough social issue with a KUTV News Special: AIDS 101 (9 p.m., Ch. 2); KSTU has the Utah Jazz-Phoenix Suns Basketball Game (8:30 p.m., Ch. 13); and KOOG has a San Diego Padres-Houston Astros Baseball Game (7 p.m., Ch. 30).