Media Watch: Libel Suits Ain't Pretty

Suit against KVUE alleges story defamed local modeling and acting school owner

Attorney Vic Feazell has won against Belo before.
Attorney Vic Feazell has won against Belo before. (Photo By John Anderson)

Attorney Vic Feazell denies he feels any special pleasure in the lawsuit he has brought against Belo Corp.-owned KVUE-TV, charging that the station libeled a local modeling agency. But it's hard to escape the juicy storyline: In 1991 Feazell, the former district attorney in McLennan Co., won a $58 million libel judgment against the media conglomerate and its Dallas affiliate, WFAA-TV – at the time the largest libel award in history. Although the suit was eventually settled out of court, the jury agreed that WFAA was malicious and negligent when it accused Feazell of corruption in a 10-part series.

The suit against KVUE alleges that a report last November labeled "Modeling Dreams Shattered," reported by Olga Campos, defamed the owner of a John Robert Powers Modeling academy franchise, a modeling and acting school on Bee Caves Road. The report, the lawsuit claims, left the distinct impression that the owners of the agency were "untrustworthy shysters and con artists in the business of bilking children and their parents" – which is, as they say, not good.

Attorneys for Belo Corp. – which also owns The Dallas Morning News, 19 television stations, and a variety of other media properties – have yet to file a formal response to the suit. But in a written statement, Belo general counsel Russ Coleman said, "The story that is the subject of the lawsuit provided important information to KVUE viewers and was not defamatory. KVUE will defend against the plaintiffs' lawsuit vigorously." He declined further comment; KVUE's Campos declined to comment on the suit as well.

While Feazell and his client may be a long way from winning in court, certain elements in the lawsuit may sound familiar to anyone accustomed to watching local TV news. The suit charges that the producers "determined the theme they wanted to convey to viewers" and then "assembled the broadcast accordingly" – suggesting that KVUE was following some sort of cookie-cutter formula for cranking out stories. "I can't wait to take [Campos'] deposition and find why she did it," Feazell said. "Because this is a nonstory; it was made up."

The angle of the sweeps-period "consumer warning" to "star struck parents" was a common one on local TV news – agencies ripping off poor innocent model wannabes. From a TV news perspective, what's not to like about that? Campos' story consisted of only three on-camera interviews – a 16-year-old "shattered" girl named Amanda Lopez, her mother, and a talent agent. When Lopez didn't get any jobs after taking classes at the Austin school, she was "devastated," said Mom, Linda Valdez. "These were her dreams, and they completely shattered them," she told Campos. At one point, Valdez said, the school wanted them to pay $5,000 to attend an audition in Los Angeles. That's wrong, the talent agent told Campos. No one should ever have to pay for an audition, she said.

Croft refused to appear on camera, but KVUE included her written response denying that the money for the Los Angeles trip was to pay for an audition; the money was only to cover expenses for the trip, she said. She also noted that the school's contract clearly states the academy doesn't guarantee employment and that she offers refunds to unhappy clients. In the suit, she alleges that Lopez simply stopped attending classes.

A sticky issue for KVUE will be the report's repeated references to complaints filed with the Texas attorney general. In the lead-in to the story, Campos said, "Complaints about an Austin modeling school have been filed with the Texas attorney general's office." And later in the piece she said, "The Texas attorney general's office has received several complaints about the John Robert Powers school, including Ms. Lopez's complaint, that the school deceived students by promising success for those who enroll."

But a spokesman for the attorney general told the Chronicle there has been only one complaint filed about the Austin school – Lopez's, which, according to the date on the report, was filed six days after the story aired on KVUE. There have been five other complaints filed about Powers schools in Texas, but those were in Dallas and Houston, the spokesman said. The only other complaint against Croft's school, according to the suit, was a licensing query filed with a state regulatory agency.

KVUE will certainly argue that the story is essentially accurate – parents and innocent starlets need to be warned about unscrupulous outfits. In fact, the story never makes a direct accusation against Croft's business, beyond noting Lopez's "devastation." But Feazell argues that the report clearly suggests Croft's franchise was defrauding customers – and it never explained how the school "shattered" Lopez's dreams. "Under libel law you have to look at the entire broadcast and the effect it will have," Feazell said. "What message does the viewer leave with? And the only message here is that Kathy Croft is up to something shady, and that's a lie."

This is dicey territory for KVUE. News organizations are typically safe if they are simply repeating accusations made by law enforcement officials. In this case, however, no official source was quoted, outside the references to the complaints against other franchises and 16-year-old Lopez saying on camera, "I went on the Internet, and I searched up John Robert Powers, and I found out that other people have complaints about this school, not only here, but in other states." (The story didn't mention if anyone from KVUE conducted a similar Internet search.)

A key point going forward will be Croft's legal status as a "private" citizen. If a person is deemed a public figure – a sports figure or elected official, for example – then a plaintiff would have to prove the story was aired with malice. But the threshold is different for private citizens. "If they are private, all they have to prove is that a station was negligent," said David Anderson, a professor with the UT School of Law who specializes in media law.

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