By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Stein’s donated work on First Amendment cases earned him the American Civil Liberties Union’s award as the 2004 Pro Bono Lawyer of the Year in Southern California. Yet on December 12, First Amendment advocate Stein, on behalf of McCaw’s News-Press, filed a vituperative 17-page defamation and libel complaint against obscure journalism professor Susan Paterno, of Chapman University in Orange County, for writing “Santa Barbara Smackdown,” an extensive recounting of the News-Pressnewsroom revolt forAmerican Journalism Review.
David J. Millstein, McCaw’s outside general counsel, told the L.A. Weekly, “We will prevail in our defamation lawsuit against the writer.” Millstein says the AJR piece was one-sided: “Though we did not allow our employees to talk to the writer, we were willing to answer written questions.”
Yet the bigger story is the spectacle of McCaw, a newspaper publisher, aggressively targeting Paterno, a lone journalist. Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a Sacramento group that advocates protection of free speech statutes, said McCaw’s effort to “use the court system to stifle Paterno is amazing. Publishers send retraction letters usually. They just don’t resort to this.”
Moreover, her legal team appears to be trying to buck special protections in California afforded to reporters targeted by deep pockets such as McCaw, who try to silence controversial writers by launching costly courtroom proceedings against them.
(In California, such legal tactics used to silence reporters are called “strategic lawsuits against public participation,” or SLAPPs. California’s especially tough law, designed to prevent such strategic lawsuits, is called an “anti-SLAPP” statute.)
Said Francke, “I can only assume that her lawyers had no knowledge of anti-SLAPP statutes or didn’t care” because they could withdraw the lawsuit after sending Paterno a message.
Paterno’s attorney, Howard King, said he believes that Stein, the ACLU award winner whom King called an “excellent” attorney, warned McCaw of the hopelessness of suing Paterno — but filed the suit anyway. Said King of Stein: “He’s just trying to chill all of Wendy McCaw’s former and current employees and any other writer who wants to try to do the News-Press story.”
In another strange twist, Stein is a poker-playing friend of Susan Paterno’s brother, Peter Paterno, who in an interview with the Weekly shed light on the world of expensive mercenaries around McCaw.
“I wasn’t upset that Larry was the one who sued Susan, because he didn’t know she was my sister, and, if it hadn’t been him, McCaw would have had some other lawyer do it,” said Peter Paterno, a well-known L.A. music lawyer. “But even if McCaw had Clarence Darrow file against my sister, the case still sucks.”
At the ACLU Los Angeles office, which gave Stein his award, attorney Peter J. Eliasberg has now joined the other side, protesting Cappello’s threatening letters to small but outspoken Santa Barbara shop owners who put up signs that upset McCaw.
When asked about Stein’s actions on McCaw’s behalf, Eliasberg declined to comment — but noted that it is usually against the tenets of lawyers working for the ACLU to file legal claims that could limit free speech.
Stein did not respond to repeated calls for comment, and Sandra McCandless, McCaw’s labor-law attorney fighting the Teamsters, was not available for comment. Neither was Los Angeles litigator Theodore Miller, who represents McCaw against Gregory Parker, her former real estate attorney turned lover turned president of her holding company, who wants $14.8 million in severance pay.
Agnes Huff, her communications and media-crisis adviser, says McCaw is no longer granting interviews — yet Huff herself has invited criticism and may be emblematic of the publicity mire in which McCaw swirls. The Century City–based Huff is tasked with keeping the press away from Arthur von Weisenberger, McCaw’s fiancé and the News-Press co-publisher, and Travis K. Armstrong, the News-Press editorial opinion editor, yet articles abound in which the two are featured — often to their detriment.
Huff comes across as an oddity, inexperienced in the elite niche of media-crisis PR, and routinely referring to herself as “Dr. Huff.” (She earned a Ph.D. from Columbia Pacific University, a correspondence school shut by the state in 2000 for losing its accreditation.)
A former crisis consultant who once worked for McCaw says Huff’s willingness to let outside journalists tell McCaw’s story instead of McCaw telling that story is “insane.” The source requested anonymity because he had read the lawsuit against Paterno and did not want to invite legal action against himself.
“Though the tactics of McCaw seem unusual as to all the litigation she’s thrown out, unless you know the business objective of McCaw, it is not fair to comment on the tactics of a crisis PR consultant,” Sugerman said. Her tactics might make sense if her goals are to push out her former editor to cut costs, keep a high-powered union out of a small paper and produce a cheaper product that advertisers must advertise in because it’s the only daily in a wealthy community.