by Rick Redding
The biggest news in local media in the last six months — a period in which LEO’s regular Media column has been on hiatus — elicited barely a whimper in any local newspaper or broadcast. That in spite of the fact that its impact could — no, make that should — have far-reaching effects in every newsroom.
After 12 years, Belo Corp., which owns WHAS-TV, abandoned the appeals process in its lawsuit with Kentucky Kingdom and wrote a big check — $7.4 million — to make the story go away. Belo could have saved 12 years of time and trouble (and certainly millions in legal fees) by simply admitting on the air that it was wrong in its reporting of an accident on the Starchaser rollercoaster at Kentucky Kingdom in 1994.
Instead, as the station was being sued by the park, the court ruled that WHAS-TV aired further false and damaging information in a four-episode “Proffitt Report,” two years after the incident, in 1996. Those reports probably convinced the jury that the station had it in for Kentucky Kingdom in a malicious way. If you watched the whole thing unfold, that’s the only conclusion that makes sense.
The size of the award, and the oddity of a news entity losing a defamation case, should have been enough to put the story in the lead position in newscasts and on the front page of The Courier-Journal. However, no TV stations assigned any reporters to the story, and The C-J buried a rehashing of the news release.
Back in 1998, when a Jefferson Circuit Court jury found in favor of the park and awarded it $4 million, WHAS-TV reported briefly on the story, as did both The C-J and Business First. But LEO media critic Tom Peterson wrote what were by far the most in-depth stories of the trial.
It took a diverse set of circumstances to create the perfect storm that resulted in an unprecedented judgment against a powerful media company.
First and foremost, in its original reporting of an accident on the Starchaser in 1994, sloppy journalism allowed incorrect information not only to get on the air, but to be repeated for nearly a week. The most egregious reporting error came when reporter Lisa Kiava said state ride inspectors had declared the ride dangerous, when in fact no one from WHAS-TV had spoken to anyone in the State’s Agriculture Department, which regulates amusement park rides.
To win the case, Kentucky Kingdom attorneys proved not only that the station aired incorrect and damaging information, but that it knew its reports were false and that it aired them anyway. That constitutes a “reckless disregard for the truth,” which is the pertinent issue in such cases.
The myriad mistakes made by the station went beyond simple reporting errors. The involvement of WHAS’s lead attorney at the time, Schuyler Olt, in newsroom decisions certainly helped escalate animosity between the station and Ed Hart, then the park’s president. Olt certainly had a say in the decision to produce and air the Proffitt Report, which focused on a lawsuit brought by the Noonan family, the parents of a young girl injured on the ride.
The 1996 stories had questionable news value, as the ride had been sold by the park. No other local media gave the suit any attention. Olt, however, pushed for and approved the series even as the park’s lawsuit against the station was going through the deposition phase on its way to trial (the Noonan case was settled a few months after the series aired). To win their suit, the Noonans had to prove the ride was unsafe, a finding that would have strengthened the station’s case in defending itself in the defamation suit brought by the park.
Olt, as was discovered in the trial, supplied Proffitt with much of the information used in the report.
Hart’s unrelenting determination to do what he calls “the right thing” in pursuing the case certainly precluded an earlier settlement.
“I’m motivated by things that are wrong,” said Hart, who says he sold his financial interest in the suit to avoid any accusation that he was in it for the money. (The park was sold to Six Flags in 1998, and Kentucky Kingdom stockholders had the option of remaining part of a liquidating trust until the legal proceedings played out, or cashing out.)
“I think things like this happen in a lot of communities, but there hasn’t been such a clear opportunity to press the case,” Hart added. “Arrogance and stupidity were coupled together to give us a clear shot at demonstrating total irresponsibility.
“I gave up my ownership because this became a mission for me. I understand that the media is not unlike anyone else. They can make mistakes. When they made a mistake, rather than correct and apologize, they went on a jihad against us, and that’s just wrong. They used their weight and power to go against us. I wasn’t going to let them get away with it.”
Hart, who still lives in Louisville, says he rejected monetary offers to settle the case after the 1994 incident. He wanted one thing — an on-air retraction in which the station admitted it was wrong. Instead, anchor Proffitt ended each of his reports in 1996 by saying the station believed it was right and stood by its story.
Those words came back to haunt WHAS during the 1998 trial, when park attorney Eric Ison made Proffitt look foolish on the witness stand. Ison laid out the facts in the case, and asked Proffitt at least a half-dozen times if he agreed that the reports that aired were false. Each time Ison said, “You now know that the report was untrue,” to which Proffitt reluctantly agreed. Then an uncomfortable Proffitt, contradicting himself, said he still stood by the stories and believed they were accurate.
It was reality TV worth watching, even though only a handful of folks ever saw it.
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