Ray Gronberg has an excellent story in today’s Durham Herald Sun concerning former Duke lacrosse coach Mike Pressler’s recent court-filed claims against Duke University. (“ Former lacrosse coach wants suit changed” )
I’m pasting in the entire story because it contains high quality reporting we rarely see in newspapers today. Even if you’re not interested in Pressler’s claims, Gronberg’s story is worth reading as a model of outstanding news reporting.
After Gronberg’s story, I offer a few more comments below the star line.
Former Duke men's lacrosse coach Mike Pressler wants to back away from a claim that his one-time employers violated the terms of a confidential settlement arising from his forced ouster in 2006.
But that doesn't mean the coach and his lawyers are dropping the lawsuit they filed against Duke University in October.
To the contrary, on Wednesday they asked that a state judge convert it into a straightforward slander case alleging that Duke spokesman John Burness maligned Pressler in comments last year to reporters from a New York newspaper and The Associated Press.
Pressler and his lawyers made the request on the eve of a scheduled hearing on the original lawsuit. Duke's attorneys wanted it thrown out because the coach had previously agreed to submit disputes about employment-contract issues to arbitration.
Clerks in the Durham County Courthouse said the hearing was supposed to go forward as scheduled this morning, despite the coach's motion.
Pressler's complaint targeted comments Burness made last April to Newsday sportswriter Steven Marcus, and in June to AP writer Aaron Beard.
The comments to Marcus appeared in an April 9 column published two days before N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper announced that he'd concluded former Duke lacrosse players David Evans, Colin Finnerty and Reade Seligmann were innocent men falsely accused of raping a stripper at a team party.
Marcus quoted Burness as saying the controversy sparked by the lacrosse case had taught Duke officials that "the coaches in general in each of our sports are responsible for the behavior of their teams."
The writer followed that with a sentence, unattributed, that said that lesson explained why Pressler was no longer the coach. Wednesday's filing contended that Burness "falsely told [Marcus] that Coach Pressler was terminated because he had not adequately supervised his team."
The suit also faulted Burness for allegedly telling Marcus that there was a day-and-night difference between Pressler and the current coach of the lacrosse team, John Danowski, and for repeating a comment originally made by school President Richard Brodhead characterizing Danowski as a "mensch" who "gets it."
The comment to Beard appeared in a June 7 story reporting that Duke officials and Pressler had negotiated a confidential settlement of potential claims triggered by Pressler's ouster.
Beard quoted Burness as saying, "Coach Pressler is an excellent coach and did a great job building the Duke men's lacrosse program. Unfortunately, last spring it was essential for the team to have a change of leadership in order to move forward."
Pressler's suit contends that Burness defamed him by saying it was necessary to change coaches.
The suit named only Duke University as a defendant, implicitly contending that the school was responsible for what Burness said in its name. Pressler and his lawyers did not target Burness personally, or assign liability to Marcus, Beard, Newsday or The Associated Press.
A media-law lawyer, Amanda Martin, said Pressler and his lawyers will have to establish that the comments made about him went beyond mere statements of opinion.
"Things that cannot be proven to be true or false cannot give rise to a libel or slander suit," said Martin, a private-practice lawyer and sometime instructor of media law at UNC Chapel Hill. Her client list includes the N.C. Press Association.
A key precedent on the point is a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court case authored by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist that rejected the idea of establishing blanket immunity for statements of opinion. But it said that, among other things, there's no liability for "statements that cannot 'reasonably [be] interpreted as stating actual facts about' an individual."
Rehnquist held that at least in cases involving a media defendant, "a statement on matters of public concern must be provable as false before there can be liability" under state laws. His wording appeared to leave open the possibility of the court's using a different standard for non-media defendants.
Folks, I'm sure most of you see what I mean.
Here are a few things I especially liked about Gronberg’s reporting.
His first three paragraphs lay out concisely and clearly some complicated legal maneuvering.
Pressler wants to back away from a particular claim he made against Duke. (par. 1)
But he’s not dropping the suit. (par. 2)
He wants the suit converted to a slander suit. (par. 3)
Gronberg sentences are information-filled and well organized. Look at the one which makes up the third paragraph:
To the contrary, on Wednesday they asked that a state judge convert it into a straightforward slander case alleging that Duke spokesman John Burness maligned Pressler in comments last year to reporters from a New York newspaper and The Associated Press.What a finely crafted sentence!
Grondberg’s use of the introductory phrase “On the contrary” alerts the reader to a storyline shift coming.
Gronberg follows that phrase with the explanation of what the shift involves. ( “they asked that a state judge convert it into a straightforward slander case” )
Having done that, Gronberg gets to the who, what, and when of the “slander case.” ( “Duke spokesman John Burness maligned Pressler in comments last year to reporters from a New York newspaper and The Associated Press.” )
Clear, concise and considerate of the reader. Will Strunk would cheer.
I appreciated the detailed information Gronberg provided to establish Amanda Martin’s bona fides.
So often reporters just offer something general like “a media-law expert, Amanda Martin, said ….,”
And their editors don’t bother to press them to do better.
I called Gronberg today and got his VM. I left a message expressing my admiration and appreciation for his reporting.
In the last few months Gronberg’s been far and away the best reporter covering stories relating to events that began with Crystal Mangum’s and Mike Nifong’s lies.