One of America’s top reporters who exposes the antics of the coal industry is being sued for libel by one of the largest independent coal barons.
Ken Ward JR, who has been labelled as “one of the nation’s top coal reporters” by Columbia Journalism Review, is being sued by Murray Energy and its owner Bob Murray, for an article he wrote in July in the Charleston Gazette. It was entitled: “Mitt Romney, Murray Energy and coal criminals.”
Ward writes the popular “Coal tattoo” blog, described by Greenwire as “a must-read” for “people who follow the coal industry and mining” and that “the longtime reporter is known for pulling no punches in his analysis of issues related to climate change, mine safety and pollution.”
In the disputed post, written last month, he certainly pulled no punches in criticising the controversial coal baron Bob Murray, one of the largest independent coal producers in the US.
The Huffington Post has described Murray as “an outspoken climate-change denier who captured national attention in 2007, following a collapse at his company’s Crandall Canyon mine in Utah that killed six miners and three rescue workers. Murray Energy’s history of unsafe practices has resulted in hundreds of citations and millions in fines.”
In the disputed blog, Ward wrote that “that renegade coal operator Bob Murray played a major role recently in a campaign fundraiser in Wheeling, W.Va., for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Readers of this blog know well the record of Mr. Murray’s company at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, and may recall that one of Murray’s subsidiaries pleaded guilty to criminal mine safety violations related to the August 2007 disaster that killed six miners and three rescue workers.”
He continued: “What you may not have heard — and certainly won’t see reported by the media outlets that constantly promote the notion of a “war on coal” by the Obama administration — is that another of Murray’s subsidiaries recently pleaded guilty to criminal Clean Water Act violations at one of its operations in Ohio.”
Bill Kovarik, a Professor of Communication at Radford University in the US, argues that “There’s nothing unethical about expressing an opinion in a blog, an area set off for interpretation and opinion. Nor is there anything illegal or unfair about expressing an opinion concerning a controversial coal company and its political connections”.
However Murray’s lawsuit says Ward’s blog post is of a “false and defamatory manner implying that Plaintiffs Murray, Murray Energy, American Energy, and Ohio Valley are criminals,” which “intended to convey, and did convey to the average reader, the false impression that Plaintiffs are criminals and act contrary to the public interest and /or in violation of laws.”
It adds that “In reality, Murray has a reputation for integrity and honesty, is not a criminal, has never killed anyone, and has diligently worked to preserve the environment.”
Murray is seeking more than $150,000 in damages from the Gazette.
A pretrial conference is scheduled for later this month.
To view the complaint go here.
As someone with a master’s degree in public relations and journalism, and someone who has more than 20 year of experience in print journalism, I can tell you that Ward has indeed crossed the line and engaged in malicious libel against Mr. Murray. I can also say your defense of him, citing Kovarik’s argument that the blogosphere is “an area set of for opinion and interpretation” is a quite pathetic attempt to justify Ward’s actions.
Let’s take a look at the facts, shall we? Ward is cast even in this story as both a “one of the nation’s top coal reporters” as well as a “blogger” — which Kovarik defines as an opinion driven.
Reporters are — or should — be driven by objectively reporting the news. Reporting the news should never be confused with delivery opinion any more than the ad sales department should determine content of the news side.
Ward deliberate obfuscation of that line has set the stage for this suit. Which is he? Reporter or Blogger? Objective journalist or Pundit?
If he is, indeed, “one of the nation’s top coal reporters” then Mr. Murray’s contention that his deliberate crossing of the line to engage in personal attack and innuendo against both Mr. Murray and by extension his company, has compromised not only Ward’s integrity as a reporter but also Mr. Murray’s good name and sullied the image of his company in the eyes of the lending community.
In my opinion, Ward is “up the creek” and this should serve as a notice to other “reporters/bloggers” and newsrooms to take a second look at what is unfortunately becoming far too common a practice.
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