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CBS Affilliate Cleared of Defaming NBC Reporter

CHICAGO (CN) - CBS did not defame former NBC reporter Amy Jacobson when it published a videotape of her swimming with the husband of a missing woman, allegedly suggesting she was having an affair with him, an Illinois appeals court ruled.

Robert Webb's sister-in-law Lisa Stebic disappeared in April 2007. Lisa's husband Craig Stebic- Webb's brother - was named as a person of interest by the local police.

Amy Jacobson, a reporter for Chicago's NBC station WMAQ, took a personal interest in the matter and established a rapport with Robert and Jill Webb. She also spoke with Craig Stebic in person and visited the Stebic home.

Based on Jacobson's interest in the case, Webb and Stebic jointly invited Jacobson and her children to visit the Stebics' home on July 6, 2007, the day before a planned community-wide search for Lisa Stebic, to discuss her disappearance.

The same day, CBS reporter Michael Puccinelli arrived hoping to interview a Stebic family member about the planned search. Puccinelli rang the doorbell, but Robert Webb told him the family did not wish to speak to him.

Puccinelli then went to a neighbor's house and obtained permission to videotape the activities in the Stebics' backyard.

The videotape, subsequently aired on a CBS broadcast, showed Craig Stebic, the Webbs and their children, and Jacobson - clad in a bikini - and her children around the swimming pool.

NBC fired Jacobson days later. She later filed a multi-million dollar defamation lawsuit against CBS for destroying her career by making it seem that she was "an adulteress and unethical reporter."

But an Illinois appeals court found for CBS last week, ruling that as a high-profile reporter chasing the Stebic story, Jacobson was a public figure and that CBS did not act with malice by airing the video of her at the Webbs' home.

"There can be no dispute that the plaintiff inserted herself into a prominent position in the controversy. Already a well-known local personality and high-profile reporter, the plaintiff worked steadfastly to become the 'owner' of the Stebic story, admittedly throwing herself into the case, frequenting the site of the Stebic home with a camera crew, participating in public vigils and searches with a camera crew, or, at times on her days off, urging the public to come forward with any clues shedding light on Lisa's disappearance," Justice Thomas Hoffman said, writing for the three-judge panel.

In fact, it was Jacobson's vigorous investigation into Stebic's disappearance that placed her in the public spotlight and made her actions on ethically questionable, the panel noted.

Proof of a ratings battle between NBC and CBS is not enough to show that CBS intended to personally defame Jacobson to lift its own ratings, the judgment stated.

"Viewed in its proper context, the plaintiff's evidence fails to create a triable issue that, when CBS edited and broadcast the videotape, it did so with the intent to publish a false report about the plaintiff, or with a reckless disregard as to the truth of the report," Hoffman wrote.

The justices disagreed that the footage unequivocally implied that Jacobson was having an affair with Craig Stebic, the husband of the missing woman.

"There is nothing shown in the videotape that is especially private. The plaintiff is shot from a distance, has a towel around her waist, and is seen primarily walking around talking on her cell phone," Hoffman wrote in the 14-page opinion.

And as an experienced reporter, Jacobson should have known that other reporting crews would be in the area the day before the search and would be eager to film the missing woman's husband as a person of interest.

Therefore, "it cannot be reasonably said that the plaintiff expected that she would find seclusion on the readily visible property outside of the home," the panel found.

The Webbs also lost their suit for invasion of privacy on similar grounds.

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