THE HERALD ON TRIAL. There have got to be some long faces at One Herald Square today. The Washington Post has weighed in with a lengthy, front-page story by Alicia Mundy on a libel suit against the Boston Herald. And if that weren't bad enough, it's been picked up by Drudge.
The suit stems from a page-one splash the Herald published on February 13, 2002: "Murphy's Law: Lenient Judge Frees Dangerous Criminals." The story, by Herald reporter Dave Wedge, claimed that Superior Court judge Ernest Murphy had said of a 14-year-old rape victim, "Tell her to get over it." According to Murphy, he never said it, and Wedge's story has had an enormously damaging effect on his reputation, his state of mind, and his and his family's health.
In a new-media twist, Murphy's suit incorporates statements that Wedge made on Fox News's The O'Reilly Factor. That makes sense, but it's also enough to send a chill down the spine of any reporter. When you're working on a sensitive story, every line is subjected to an editor's careful inspection. Sometimes a lawyer will look it over, too. But go on TV and start blabbing about it, and you're operating strictly without a net.
Here is what Murphy told the Boston Globe several weeks after the Herald story ran:
I deny that I ever said anything critical of, or demeaning about, the victim. Every single quote that has been attributed to me about that has been fabricated out of thin air. The real truth is 180 degrees. I was extremely concerned about the welfare of the victim, and I made that position apparent to everyone.
Here is what the Post reports about Wedge:
Wedge said he stands behind what he wrote but acknowledged the quote may not have been exact. "I know he said the judge said either 'She's got to get over it' or 'Tell her to get over it,'" he said in an interview. Murphy maintains the conversation never occurred....
Wedge acknowledged in an affidavit that the 14-year-old girl, who he wrote had "tearfully" read her "heart-wrenching" statement in court, in fact never spoke in court nor took the stand. And although his story referred to "several" courthouse sources, he confirmed in a deposition that he had talked with only one person who had allegedly heard Murphy make the comment.
As Mundy observes, because Murphy is a public official he must show that the Herald acted with "actual malice" - that is, that it published the story knowing that it was false, or that it acted with reckless disregard for whether the story was true or false. So Murphy still faces quite a hurdle.
It will be interesting to see whether the Herald fights back against the Post. If I were Pat Purcell, I'd take a called strike on this one.