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Minnesota Media Law and the Scandal of the Map

Back in September our esteemed Mr. Gates wrote an interesting piece about an incident that occurred between the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Minnesota Vikings. I like to think of it as the Scandal of the Map.

The Strib published an article on September 4, 2011 that appeared to suggest the Vikings had plans to build a hotel/convention center as the proposed stadium site in Arden Hills. A map (hence the Scandal of the Map) shown at a St. Paul Rotary luncheon was said to have a red circle on it marking a suggested site for a potential convention center/hotel on the 260-acre prospective stadium parcel in Arden Hills. If a convention center was built in Arden Hills it would compete with the convention centers in Minneapolis and St. Paul for business, something that members of St. Paul and Minneapolis City Councils would not want.

About a week after that article was published in the Star-Tribune, Vikings VP of Public Affairs and Stadium Development, Lester Bagley responded to the article. According to Bagley, the Minnesota Vikings have no plans, past or present, to build a convention center in Arden Hills. Not only have the Vikings never planned to build a convention center in Arden Hills, but the map that started the entire convention center brouhaha was not one created by the Vikings. Bagley said the map was created by Ramsey County officials, which is what the Star-Tribune reporter was told when she contacted the Vikings for comment. But, despite the fact that the Vikings said that they not only did not/do not have plans to build a convention center, but that the map that sparked the controversy was not generated by the team, the Strib reporter asked various city officials to comment on the map, and framed the Vikings' assertions that they had no plans to build a convention center as backpedaling.

Even though this dust-up between the Vikings and the Star-Tribune occurred back in September, recent events in the Twin Cities have me thinking about it again and the possible legal implications.

More Minnesota media law and how the Strib might get its comeuppance after the jump.

Just this week, Twin Cities broadcaster KSTP was hit with $1 million in damages for a story the station aired in 2009. The story was about a holistic healer who had "de-prescribed" and anti-anxiety medication for a client. The patient told KSTP that she had a suicidal episode as a result of that treatment plan. However, in the holistic healer's defamation suit against KSTP, it was revealed that in medical records that the patient's own physician had reduced the amount of anti-anxiety medication the patient was on and that there was no evidence that the patient had tried to commit suicide. The reason that the jury in this case awarded $1million in damages (possibly the highest amount awarded in Minnesota) to the holistic healer was because they felt KSTP had shown "actual malice" to air the story when the station had knowledge that the information being aired was false but proceeded with the report as if the information was true. According to the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

Minnesota media might be more careful when reporting news, media watchers said after a jury ordered KSTP-TV to pay $1 million in compensatory damages as part of a defamation verdict concerning a story about a holistic healer.

Well, well, well, that account of KSTP's reporting sounds remarkably similar to what the Star-Tribune is said to have done to the Minnesota Vikings in the Scandal of the Map. If what Lester Bagley said in his rebuttal is true and the Star-Tribune knowingly published something false and misleading, then, legally speaking, things could get interesting.

How interesting?

To start with, when a reporter knowingly prints something untrue it's called libel. Libel is essentially slander in print form and the legal defense against an accusation of libel (or slander) is that the information in question is true. But, since the information printed regarding the Vikings stadium was said by Lester Bagley to be false, it would appear that the Star-Tribune has no legal defense for what it did. Oh, and since that Star-Tribune reporter asked people to answer questions about the Vikings' Arden Hills stadium proposal based on information the Vikings publicly refuted as false, we can also throw in a good argument for the Star-Tribune committing false light defamation of character against the Vikings. Because, while the people answering the Star-Tribune's questions didn't lie, if the reporter knew the basis for those questions was false, then going forward and printing responses based on information known to be false puts the entire stadium issue in a false light that is damaging to the Vikings. A good lawyer, and I would guess the Vikings know a few, might even make an argument for conspiracy too if that reporter communicated at all with a supervising editor. In light of the recent award of $1 million in damages in the defamation suit against KSTP, if the Vikings were to take the Star-Tribune to court and it is proven that the Star-Tribune's reporting was maliciously false, it is conceivable that the Vikings could be awarded financial damages as compensation.

Because so much of our legal system is based on legal precedence, the ruling against KSTP could have long-reaching implications for other local media, specifically, the Star-Tribune. I have no idea whether the Vikings have any intentions of taking the Star-Tribune to court, but this recent ruling seems to suggest that the courts are not likely to be lenient if they find the reporting was maliciously false. While such a ruling might be a nice blow for justice, it seems unlikely to do anything to mitigate the negative perception that has been created about the proposed stadium site in Arden Hills. Stadium supporters will probably have to hope that it simply deters future attacks.