Nashville TV Reporter Fights to Shield Notes on DA Story

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CN) – NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams will appeal a judge’s order to release documents used in a story on Nashville’s district attorney that spurred a $200 million lawsuit from the city official.

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk sued Williams and Scripps Media, owner of NewsChannel 5, a year ago over what the lawsuit called “a patently false story published by the defendants which alleges that Mr. Funk, in his role as district attorney, extorted money from a criminal defendant, solicited a bribe, and even blackmailed a criminal defendant into dismissing a civil lawsuit.”

The story at issue was published with the headline, “Explosive Allegations Emerge from David Chase Case: $2 Million Requested To Make Case ‘Go Away,'” Funk’s lawsuit says.

Chase is a Nashville real estate developer who was accused of domestic violence. NewsChannel 5’s story says a political consultant working for Chase requested $2 million from Chase’s father to make his case “go away,” implying that the money was used to bribe someone, according to Funk.

Funk says an assistant district attorney handled Chase’s case and the charges were dismissed based on inconsistent statements made by the alleged victim under oath.

The DA claims NewsChannel 5’s story “is a garbled and one-sided account of the facts, and contains defamatory observations and comments.” He seeks $50 million in compensatory damages and $150 million in punitive damages.

But Williams and his employer argued in a motion to dismiss filed last March that their news reporting is protected by the fair report privilege.

“This lawsuit is an attempt by an elected public official to silence and intimidate a journalist and news organization that has accurately reported on questionable conduct and judgment by that official,” the 23-page filing states.

The fair report privilege protects journalists from liability, even if they published something defamatory, as long as they relied on an official public document or statement from a public official and fairly and accurately used the source.

Attorneys for Scripps and Williams also say the NewsChannel 5 report doesn’t contain false and defamatory statements about Funk.

“The [news] story did not state Mr. Funk solicited a bribe, extorted money from a criminal defendant or blackmailed a criminal defendant,” the motion to dismiss memo states. “Instead, [it] reported on testimony and allegations that were actually being made in David Chase’s lawsuit in Williamson County. It cannot be disputed that the testimony and allegations quoted in the news story were in fact made in that lawsuit.”

The motion to dismiss has still not been heard because Funk’s legal team has argued they need to know Williams’ sources and see his investigative files.

The Tennessean reported last month that Judge William Acree sided with the DA and ordered Williams to turn over documents from his investigation of Funk.

But the reporter isn’t going down without a fight. Williams and Scripps filed a notice of appeal last week, asking the Tennessee Court of Appeals to review Judge Acree’s order.

In a memo accompanying the appeal application, attorney Ronald Harris of Neal & Harwell challenged Acree’s finding that discovery of Williams’ report files is relevant to the issue of actual malice – whether the reporter published a statement with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.

“An interlocutory appeal of this issue is important and necessary because that ruling will affect every stage of this case as it goes forward and because such a ruling would cause harm to defendants and to the news media’s constitutional rights and duties to investigate and report on newsworthy events, including court cases and other official proceedings,” the memo states.

Harris added, “Plaintiff’s briefs in this case have not cited, and defendants are not aware of, any Tennessee case that analyzed and applied actual malice to the fair report privilege as the plaintiff asked the court to do in this case.”

Scripps and Williams argue that naming the reporter’s sources for the Funk story will harm his ability to get information from his contacts and confidential sources going forward.

“Defendants’ concerns about this substantial and unwarranted intrusion into their news-gathering process are not hypothetical or theoretical, but are crucially important to protect their ability to investigate and report on newsworthy events, including the conduct of public officials,” the memo states. “A news reporter who discloses the identity of confidential sources or even individuals interviewed in the course of his investigation will no doubt soon be unable to obtain information from such individuals in the future.”

Lyn Plantinga, NewsChannel 5’s vice president and general manager, told the Tennessean, “The principles called into question here jeopardize the work processes and sources of every reporter in this state and, ultimately would harm the ability of journalists to meet their greatest responsibility – to seek and report the truth…That is why we must appeal.”