New York Times beats libel suit in Texas

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By G.W. Schulz

The 2003 package of investigative stories known as "A Dangerous Business" ranks highly among adoring muckrakers. It was put together as a joint PBS Frontline episode and series of articles in the New York Times, all led by journalistic juggernaut, Lowell Bergman. The series highlighted in excruciating detail workplace safety problems at a pipe manufacturing plant in Tyler, Texas, owned by the Alabama-based company, McWane, Inc. and earned the contributors a Pulitzer Prize.

The Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency launched criminal investigations into McWane plants the same month that the series launched.

bergman1.jpg
Lowell Bergman to world:
"Don't fuck with public television."

But after it actually ran, a cloud of sorts was cast over Bergman's reporting when the owner of a workplace safety medical provider called Occu-Safe sued for libel arguing that the Times articles included false statements about the quality of care provided to McWane employees by Occu-Safe.

A judge has dismissed the libel suit as of Tuesday without offering a written opinion, meaning it's not clear what argument made by Times attorneys in a motion for summary judgment worked. But the Times legal team had argued that the articles could not be legally regarded as defamatory, because they described conditions and events at the plant truthfully. A Times vice president believes Occu-Safe will appeal, but he says they're sure to prevail again.

The entire package is a riveting primer for anyone even remotely interested in how workplace safety regulation works (or doesn't, depending on a number of factors) in the United States. Bergman more recently completed a series of pieces for Frontline on the fate of newspapers (and other media) in the United States and is a professor at Berkeley's graduate School of Journalism.

*Image from Berkeley's journalism school Web site

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