The next time media critic Brent Bozell and his Parents Television Council (PTC) claim to be persuading advertisers to yank advertising from some tawdry TV program, it might be useful to check out the claim carefully.
That's an interesting sidelight to Bozell's settlement of a libel suit filed by World Wrestling Entertainment last week. The suit centers on Bozell's admission that, in 2000, he falsely blamed what was then called the World Wrestling Federation for children's killing other kids using "wrestling moves" learned on TV.
What's more, Bozell also acknowledged that he exaggerated the number of advertisers that pulled ads from wrestling programming: He claimed to have persuaded advertisers to withdraw from WWF Smackdown! on UPN that had never been advertisers there to begin with.
Libel lawyers not involved in the case expressed surprise at the size of the $3.5 million PTC agreed to pay in the case, an unusually large amount for a pretrial settlement with a plaintiff that has the huge legal hurdle to overcome because the WWE and its chief Vince McMahon are considered "public figures." Courts always make it harder for them to win libel cases.
WWE CEO Linda McMahon said she and her husband, Vince, the chairman, feel vindicated. "Not very often do you, in a settlement, get money like this," she said. "You can't sit by while someone is libeling you. It's clearly a devastating thing to be linked to these deaths."
Bozell's admission cheered the executives of several networks that have tangled with Bozell, the PTC and one-time parent group Media Research Council, which have attacked shows like Boston Public, Temptation Island
and South Park, usually for sex content and foul language.
A PTC spokesman said neither the organization nor Bozell would comment further.
"What you're seeing with WWE is something that they've been doing for a long time," said Tony Fox, VP at Comedy Central, whose South Park
once featured an episode of Bozell-esque protesters committing suicide at a network's headquarters. "It's not in their interest to put things in context."
WWE sued Bozell when the PTC seized on the death of a 6-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Fla., girl at the hands of 12-year-old playmate Lionel Tate. Lawyers for Tate futilely attempted "the wrestling defense," arguing that he was performing wrestling moves he saw on TV. A judge determined that Tate had stomped the girl to death and convicted him of first-degree murder.
Bozell and the PTC, however, routinely included the Tate case among "the startling and sad facts" of children's killing other children after watching wrestling. (Tate was actually watching Cartoon Network's Cow and Chicken
at the time he killed the little girl.) Such assertions were repeated in PTC newsletters and direct-mail fund-raising solicitations and by Bozell on TV.
The PTC regularly bragged about its successes in lobbying advertisers, claiming variously that 30 to 45 companies had withdrawn. "They're so disgusted by what you are doing they've all pulled their advertising," Bozell told WWE star The Rock (aka Dwayne Johnson) in a TV appearance. Many advertisers, like MCI, did indeed bow under PTC pressure. But Bozell claimed companies that never did, like Saks, Federated Department Stores and Maytag.
"Many of the companies we stated had 'withdrawn' or pulled their support had never, in fact, advertised on Smackdown!
nor had any plan to advertise on Smackdown!" Bozell said in a statement. "Again, we regret this error and retract any such misleading statements."
There's a big downside for other media outlets. WWE attorney Jerry S. McDevitt, a partner at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, said one big lever on his side was the argument that Bozell and PTC's assertions that fund-raising efforts were not political speech but commercial speech. In libel land, a public figure like WWE would normally have to prove "actual malice," that Bozell and his associates spoke knowing or recklessly disregarding that their contentions were false. But, if the statements were judged commercial speech, the McMahons would have to prove only that the statements were false.
Kevin Goering, a media lawyer at Coudert Bros., said, "The suggestion that this was pure commercial speech is part of a disturbing trend in the courts' differentiating between commercial and non-commercial speech."