TRENTON, N.J. (CN) – The New Jersey Appellate Division protected a journalist from giving up sources who allegedly defamed Donald Trump by undervaluing his net worth in the 2005 book “TrumpNation,” portraying the celebrity entrepreneur as considerably less than a billionaire.
The superior court should not have granted Trump’s motion for discovery, the appellate court ruled, because the book falls within the broad definition of “news” outlined in New York’s Shield Law.
In January 2006 Trump sued writer Timothy O’Brien and publisher Time Warner Books, claiming O’Brien defamed him by reporting that “three people with direct knowledge of Donald’s finances, people who had worked closely with him for years, told me that they thought his net worth was somewhere between $150 million and $250 million.” The book adds that, “by anyone’s standards this still qualified Donald as comfortably wealthy, but none of these people thought he was remotely close to being a billionaire.”
O’Brien had written similar statements in 2004 as part of a series of articles for The New York Times.
Trump said the low estimates of his wealth injured his credit and damaged his business interests, and demanded that O’Brien reveal his sources.
O’Brien refused, citing New Jersey’s “newspersons privilege.” New Jersey laws could apply, because O’Brien lives in New Jersey, and Trump has casino interests in Atlantic City. But the case also has significant ties to New York, where Trump lives and the book was published. The lower court judge acknowledged that O’Brien would win under the New Jersey law, but ruled that the journalist’s book qualified as entertainment – and not news – under the New York law.
Judge Payne said the appellate court disagreed “with many aspects of the motion judge’s decision,” including its narrow construction of the New York Shield Law. The appeals court cited 1981 amendments aimed at extending reporter privilege to any “professional medium of communicating news or information to the public.”
Payne said “TrumpNation” clearly falls under this definition. Though the book blends news with facetious trivia games, it can still be considered news under the statute.
“Without a doubt,” Payne wrote, “details of the life of Trump, whether entertainingly reported or not, constitute matters of public interest and thus ‘news’ protected by the Shield Law.”