The $165 million lawsuit filed by Democratic politicos and Al Gore pals Clark Jones and attorney Houston Gordon against WorldNetDaily.com and reporters Tony Hays and Charles C. Thompson II includes many other defendants, most of whom have no idea why they are even being sued.
"This lawsuit is the legal equivalent of a drive-by shooting," said Joseph Farah, chief executive officer and editor of WorldNetDaily. "The fact that this disgraceful attack on the First Amendment is not being actively denounced by journalists and media activists from coast to coast is a sad commentary on the state of our industry. I don't think it's an accident that the No. 1 independent Internet newssite was targeted by powerful and wealthy friends of the losing presidential candidate – and that the suit pertained to an investigative series that may well have cost that candidate the Electoral College votes he needed for victory."
Farah said he thinks the scattershot nature of the complaint reflects the deep-seated anger and resentment that motivated the lawsuit.
"This is not a case about the reputation of one man," said Farah. "It's clearly about revenge for Al Gore losing the presidency – and the victimization of those totally unconnected with the series is a perfect illustration of that fact."
"Instead of targeting their lawsuit, doing the research necessary in such a situation, they've cut loose with a double-barreled shotgun," said Thompson, co-author of the 18-part WND investigative series in question. A founding producer of ABC's "20-20" and for years Mike Wallace's producer at CBS, Thompson is one of the 25 defendants named in the lawsuit.
"The collateral damage to innocent bystanders is nothing short of criminal," said Thompson. "Were it not for the harm they've already caused a number of people, their charges of reckless disregard against us would be laughable in light of their own grossly incompetent research."
Case in point: One defendant is Ron Shank of Optimus Media in Savannah, Tenn. Shank's only involvement with the WorldNetDaily series was designing the website of the Savannah Journal, a local newssite that merely linked to the WND stories. Shank is not now, nor has he ever been, involved or even privy to the editorial process at the Journal or WorldNetDaily.
Furthermore, Steve Crampton, Shank's attorney, believed he had worked out an agreement with Gordon to ensure his client would not be named in the suit.
"I write now to remind you of our agreement," said Crampton in a letter to Gordon, "whereby you agreed to non-suit Mr. Shank upon receipt of affidavits showing that Mr. Shank had no editorial control over and no input into the articles giving rise to your lawsuit."
Gordon sent this statement back, "I believe you overstate the conversation that you and I had. I advised you that it was my intention, unless facts indicated otherwise, to dismiss or non-suit Mr. Shank upon receipt of affidavits showing that Mr. Shank simply sold
access and had no 'control' over the website being used by Mr. Hays and the Savannah Journal. We are still investigating both the law and the facts surrounding what a website owner or provider has. ..."
Despite Gordon's acknowledgement that the agreement to non-suit Shank existed, and although the affidavits requested were prepared and provided, Gordon has not released Shank from the suit as promised.
"Ron Shank," said Thompson, "is a malicious prosecution suit waiting to happen."
A devout Christian and well known locally for his support of family values and Christian ideals, Shank says he is outraged by the actions of Jones and Gordon.
"My connection to the Journal is so tenuous," said Shank, "that their [Jones and Gordon] actions are akin to suing the man that installed your cable TV line for slander because of something Rush Limbaugh said about you on television."
Yet, Shank is frequently approached by neighbors who are greatly confused about his role – or lack thereof – in the case. And the Courier newspaper of Savannah has repeatedly used Shank's name in articles on the lawsuit without ever calling him for comment or attempting to determine his actual role in the suit.
"To use one of Houston Gordon's own phrases, their prosecution of Ron Shank is so 'malicious and false as to be beyond the bounds of human behavior,'" said Hays, who also lives in Savannah. "It simply confirms that this lawsuit is an act of political revenge. Unfortunately for Mr. Jones and Mr. Gordon, the burden of proof in this case lies with them. Mr. Jones had some five months to provide us with evidence that would refute the documentary evidence and witness statements that we had accumulated in the course of our investigation. In all that time, and to this day, we have been given nothing but Mr. Jones' vague denials of wrongdoing, which we duly published in our articles. Ron Shank was asked for specific affidavits, and he provided those post haste. Then Gordon reneged. That, more than anything else, explains what we're dealing with here."
Another bewildered defendant caught up in what many are calling a political-revenge lawsuit is insurance executive H.J. Maxedon, of Selmer, Tenn. A prominent area Republican who hosted a local cable-TV show called "Mornings in McNairy," Maxedon invited Hays on his show in mid-December. Hays and Maxedon had met only in passing prior to then.
Maxedon interviewed Hays about the WND series and about future projects that Hays and Thompson might be considering. During the interview, Hays recapped the highlights of the WND series, mentioning the allegations made against Clark Jones. According to Tennessee law, neither the owners of the station nor Maxedon can be held liable for statements made by a guest on a non-scripted show.
Yet, like Ron Shank, Maxedon was named as a defendant and forced to seek counsel.
The station, WSIB, offered Jones equal time, but to date he has not taken advantage of that offer.
Another bystander pulled into the maelstrom was Decatur County, Tenn., Chronicle Editor Charlotte Alexander. She reprinted, with permission, the "Tennessee Underworld" series despite a phone call and a letter from Jones' attorneys Houston Gordon and Curt Hopper, of Savannah.
"They offered nothing to refute the Thompson and Hays stories; they simply said they were false. I had already checked out nearly all the allegations through my own independent sources and verified that Thompson and Hays were on solid ground. To simply tell me something is false and expect me to knuckle under and not publish it is ludicrous. If that's the way things worked, then Richard Nixon would never have resigned. We would simply have accepted his denials and let the matter drop," said Alexander.
"Besides," she continued, "Houston Gordon has made his own malicious intent clear in interviews he has given to newspapers, plainly stating his desire to run all of us (publications and companies named in the lawsuit) out of business. If that's not malicious, I don't know what is."
And liability for re-publication is an iffy matter as well. The division of liability between the original publisher and a reprint publisher has never been settled.
Another apparent faux pas by Jones and Gordon is the naming of Rebecca Hagelin, vice president of communications at WorldNetDaily, as the only individual WND employee to be so honored. Neither CEO and Editor Joseph Farah, nor Managing Editor David Kupelian, nor for that matter anyone else on the editorial or business staff was named in the suit. Hagelin's job with WND entails designing and implementing the public relations strategy for the company, building the communications department, developing strategic alliances with other media, representing the company on the East Coast and appearing on television and radio shows on behalf of WorldNetDaily.com, Inc. As with Shank and the Savannah Journal, she is not part of the editorial side of WND.
"I'm uncertain which of two driving forces prompted Jones and Gordon to name me in the suit: Was it their stupidity, or their desire to oppress? Either the Jones attorneys are acting out of pure ignorance of the editorial process, or they are attempting to deny my First Amendment right to promote WorldNetDaily.com to the world." Hagelin said, "They obviously have no understanding of how a news operation runs, and that the editorial and business portions of a news company are separate.
"Under our Constitution, there simply is no room for holding the messenger accountable for the contents of the message," continued Hagelin. "Naming me is a strike against the entire public relations industry. But it is a blind, ill-aimed blow. I'm looking forward to punching back with a malicious-prosecution lawsuit of my own aimed at hurting them where it counts," laughed Hagelin. "No, not there – I'm talking about their pocketbooks."
In some ways, however, the defendant whose inclusion is the most difficult to comprehend – besides the plethora of "John Does" and "Jane Does" named in the suit – is a defunct, underground, satirical newspaper in Savannah, Tenn., called the Savannah Snitch. The Snitch is named as part of a conspiracy to defame Clark Jones because it reprinted the transcript of a Nashville, Tenn., TV station's 15-second segment on the Thompson-Hays series – in which Jones' name is never mentioned.
Despite the fact that the Snitch, which focused mostly on local officeholders, carried the slogan "Satire is the sincerest form of insult" on its masthead – and the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled time and again that satire is opinion and completely protected by the First Amendment – Jones and Gordon named the publication as a defendant as well. As might be expected in the case of an underground newspaper, no one knows exactly who comprised the staff of the Snitch.
Perhaps the most distressing result of naming defendants helter-skelter, apparently without research, is that these individuals have no choice but to go to the trouble and expense of defending themselves in a case where their liability at worst is questionable. Plus, they are prevented from filing malicious-prosecution suits against Jones until the main lawsuit is settled, a process that could take years.
"The fact that Jones and Gordon have made such egregious errors in drawing up the lawsuit and identifying the defendants indicates that the lawsuit was either filed simply for its public relations impact or because Gordon is incompetent," said Thompson, a veteran of several defamation suits while employed by ABC and CBS – all of which he won. "Their marbles were taken away from them when Al Gore lost Tennessee and thus the election, and this is their revenge."
WorldNetDaily has established a Legal Defense Fund to offset legal costs in defending itself against this lawsuit. Contributions can be made online, or by calling WND toll-free at 1-877-909-1776. Also, a check, made payable to WorldNetDaily Legal Defense Fund, can be mailed to: WorldNetDaily.com, Inc., P.O. Box 409, Cave Junction, OR 97523.