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State justice blasts Bergen Record

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

EDITORIAL : A state Supreme Court justice scolded the Bergen Record for reporting allegations in an initial bankruptcy filing against a North Jersey real estate agent before anyone had a chance to vet them. The associate justice’s remarks came during a hearing today in a case that could end up dictating how the New Jersey media handles lawsuits that haven’t yet been heard in court. It’s no stretch to say that the highest court’s decision could make the unsteady print industry’s knees even weaker.

“With privileges come responsibility,” Justice Roberto A. Rivera-Soto told the media lawyers. “Someone within the news organization ought to know what they are reporting about.”

It all stems from a March 2006 story one of the paper’s reporters wrote about a federal bankruptcy complaint alleging that Thomas John Salzano “misappropriated” a half-million dollars from a now-defunct telecommunications company owned by his father to buy a home and pay for his personal entertainment .

The report, “Man accused of stealing $500,000 for high living,” appeared on the Record’s Web site, as well as in the Glen Ridge Voice, a weekly newspaper.

Salzano sued, calling the complaints unfounded and unproven. As emphasized in court in Trenton today, the story used words such as “stole” and “stealing” to characterize Salzano — even though those words don’t appear anywhere in the lawsuit.

Salzano, who represented himself, said that made him out to be a criminal when “I didn’t steal anything.” Indeed, several of the counts in the complaint already have been withdrawn or dismissed.

To this point, Salzano has said he doesn’t want a corrrection or a retraction. “I  just think they should have just acted a little more responsibly,” he said.

Until now, members of the media could cite the “fair reporting privilege” when they recounted accusations from a court filing. Media lawyers argued that newspapers (and online sites) are covered by the privilege as long as the stories accurately and fairly report any allegations. Whether they are true of false, they said, the “news” is in the fact that one person or entity is publicly bringing charges against another.

Although a state judge agreed, the appeals panel saw it differently.

The flaw, the appeals judges said last November, is that the “fair report privilege” is supposed to be applied to court decisions, not to complaints filed by law enforcement or the public. For all a news organization knows, the judges said, a plaintiff could dismiss the action once the story has been published. By then, the public damage already is done.

Ruling against North Jersey Media Group (which publishes the Bergen Record), the appeals judges went so far as to suggest that newspapers verify the facts of a complaint before reporting them — to the point of having to prove accusations were, in fact, true.

But wait….

Ladies and gentlemen, the Supremes: They froze the ruling in January, at the behest of the New Jersey Press Association, and today began reviewing the case.

For newspapers, which rely on tales of human conflict to stay in business, the stakes are incredibly high. For The Bergen Record, a newspaper no longer based in Bergen County, the outcome could be devastating — especially if Salzano is allowed to seek damages.

Bruce Rosen, an attorney for North Jersey Media Group — and a former star reporter himself — argued that journalists aren’t lawyers or detectives and can’t be expected to verify every allegation in a lawsuit.

Which, to Rivero-Soto, apparently strikes at the heart of the matter.

How can reporters, he wondered, reliably describe allegations contained in documents written in a language they clearly don’t understand? Why should they determine what is and isn’t reportable from a complex legal document when many of them  have never taken a single course in any type of law?

And although he didn’t put it in these exact words: Why should they serve as mouthpieces for those pursuing complaints against others through the proper legal channels?

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