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Las Vegas Newspaper Sues Sharron Angle, Enters Journalistic Gray Zone

4 years ago
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LAS VEGAS -- When I blogged last month that the Las Vegas Review-Journal "must" sue Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle for posting two of its stories on her campaign website without permission, it was unthinkable that they'd actually do so.

And then, of course, it did, adding Angle to the list of more than 100 defendants in an unusual and aggressive campaign to enforce its copyrights across the Web -- and in the bargain creating for itself some very sticky and potentially unprecedented journalistic quandaries.

Like, for instance, must Nevada's largest paper now include a passage in every news story it does on Angle's race against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledging that its owners have sued her?

Sharron AngleCan the R-J, whose publisher and editor have been outspoken supporters of the Tea Party darling, actually endorse her for Senate after having publicly accused her of stealing from them?

Will they sue candidates who reproduce their endorsements in other races, long a de rigueur campaign practice?

The Angle lawsuit, which seeks $150,000 and ownership of the SharronAngle.Com domain name, came after I reported on my Vegas-centric blog on Aug. 23 that the candidate had posted at least a half-dozen full Review-Journal articles about the race dating back to her June 8 primary win.

In doing so, her campaign had committed the same act that had made lawsuit targets out of such varied sites as The Armed Citizen and the Motorcycle Racing Club of Nevada since the paper began pursuing the tactic in March. As in the other suits, the private law firm Righthaven LLC, hired by the R-J to execute this effort, sued Angle without first requesting the material be taken down. Also like the others, the first indication the Angle campaign had that they had been sued came in a call from Steve Green, a reporter for the competing Las Vegas Sun who has been carefully chronicling the lawsuits.

Neither Angle nor her campaign have commented.

After suing Angle last weekend, Righthaven CEO Steven told the Review-Journal: "Hopefully, Mr. Friess will understand that our present action against Ms. Angle demonstrates that we don't follow a political agenda."

(So noted, though I never suggested otherwise: I'd simply stated that the logical extension of the R-J's efforts would have to result in such a lawsuit, however politically and journalistically awkward. It was the Nevada Democratic Party, itself a target of an R-J suit, that used my post to suggest the paper was playing favorites in its legal roulette.)

Whatever its motive, the Review-Journal has placed itself in journalistically uncharted territory. No political or media experts I contacted could recall a mainstream newspaper ever suing a major-party candidate in the heat of a hotly contested election campaign. University of Nevada at Las Vegas journalism professor Mary Hausch says the paper owes it to its readers now disclose the lawsuit in each story about the Angle-Reid race. So far, it has not done so.

"There's so much drama in the R-J newsroom over this race and how to maintain any credibility for the newspaper when it's all over," said Hausch, a former managing editor at the R-J. "When you have the publisher working day by day to take down [Harry] Reid and speaking to Republican groups on the one hand, and then the paper sues the candidate that you think the publisher supports on the other, it's getting crazy. If the R-J is going to start to disclose in the U.S. Senate race, the disclosure might be as long as the story."

R-J publisher Sherman Frederick and Editor Thomas Mitchell did not return calls for comment.

Las Vegas copyright attorney Ryan Gile, who has advised some past defendants but is not involved in the Angle suit, said he suspects -- based on other settlements he's familiar with -- that Righthaven will accept a deal of around $5,000 per infraction from the candidate. Still, he said, the legal action intersects jarringly with the paper's other role as an impartial observer in the race.

"It's a clear-cut case of copyright infringement, no matter how harmless, but did they really need to go after her?" Gile said. "I guess it's taught Sharron Angle and a lot of other people a lesson."

The copyright infringement campaign was already an awkward development for the paper's reporters prior to the Angle suit. Sources at the newspaper told me Mitchell and Gibson held a meeting last month to calm down the staff and explained that the company believes this was the best way to protect their content, and, in turn, their jobs. One veteran reporter responded by voicing concern about the problems the lawsuits could cause for the paper's journalists. That's exactly what happened following another of the paper's suits, this one brought against the website of the tourist publication the Las Vegas Advisor for posting an Review-Journal article about the results of a survey the Advisor did on Strip ticket prices. But that was itself the result of a scoop the Advisor handed to the paper, and now threatens the reporter-source relationship between the Advisor and R-J's entertainment scribe.

The lawsuit campaign could alienate potential advertisers as well. The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, a $4 billion resort opening on the Las Vegas Strip in December, had posted R-J articles in the "media mentions" section of its website, although they were removed after I noted it on my blog last weekend. If the resort didn't have permission -- and it probably didn't, given that it took the pieces down -- Righthaven might have sued in order to be consistent.

With political endorsement season approaching, the legal actions also threaten to hamper the R-J editorial board's ability to influence voters. Candidates routinely reprint and post those endorsements on their websites. But now that Angle has been sued they can't expect to be given a pass even if the paper supports them.

As for the Angle-Reid race, there's little doubt the Review-Journal will offer a glowing endorsement of the Republican. Hausch, however, wonders how the editorial board will handle the lawsuit when drafting its letter of support.

Quipped Hausch: "I guess they could say, 'We think she's a thief, but we like her a lot.' "

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