Peter Zuckerman, Reporter Sued by Billionaire for Comments on Rachel Maddow, Apologizes in Settlement - iMediaEthics

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Peter Zuckerman, a former reporter for the Idaho Falls Post-Register, apologized to Idaho billionaire Frank VanderSloot as part of a libel settlement.

VanderSloot, CEO of Melaleuca, an “online wellness shopping club,” sued Zuckerman for his comments on MSNBC on May 4, 2012 about VanderSloot, including his saying that the billionaire outed him as gay in a newspaper ad. VanderSloot’s ad related to Zuckerman’s reporting for the Post-Register and identified Zuckerman as gay based on a 2003 article Zuckerman wrote for a Florida outlet. See the ad here.

The transcript of Zuckerman’s appearance on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow Show is here. Zuckerman said his boyfriend lost his job because they found out he was gay and in a relationship with Zuckerman, that he was personally harassed when people found out he was gay. Zuckerman said “This did not happen until my name appeared in the ad.”

Zuckerman’s attorney Gary Bostwick told iMediaEthics by phone that the lawsuit was settled in confidence and they couldn’t comment beyond the affidavit and the news that it was settled.

iMediaEthics saw Zuckerman’s affidavit, in which he wrote: “I agree with Mr. VanderSloot that there was no evidence that my sexual orientation had anything to do with my approach to the story. It would be unfair for anyone to conclude that it did.”

Zuckerman noted that before VanderSloot’s ad in the newspaper was published, he himself had “spoken and written” about being gay and a local radio show had talked about him being gay.  “Clearly, locally, many people knew that I was and am gay before the first Community Page ad came out,” he wrote. “But others who had not previously known I was gay learned about my sexual orientation because it was mentioned in the Community Page ads.”

Zuckerman’s affidavit said he didn’t knowingly lie about one of the claims in question: that is, his claim on the Rachel Maddow Show that his then-boyfriend had been fired because of the ad wasn’t true. However, as far as Zuckerman knew, it was true, the affidavit maintains. The affidavit says that Zuckerman’s then-boyfriend told him he was fired after the ad appeared, which is what Zuckerman told Maddow; but it turned out his boyfriend had lied about that claim.

“That was what I believed to be true when I said it, but it was not true,” Zuckerman’s affidavit says.

Zuckerman said in his affidavit that he “could have been clearer” when he was discussing with Maddow about being harassed. The affidavit says:

“Although attacks I had related to Maddow occurred after the first Community Page ad, many attacks actually started long before the Community Page ad was published. I should have made clear that there had been many attacks before the Community Page ad that criticized my article and that not all of the attacks happened after the ad. I regret that my answer on the Rachel Maddow Show could be seen in an inaccurate way and may have been interpreted to mean that I believed Mr. VanderSloot wanted people to h arass me because of the articles. I did not mean to suggest that and I regret the harm caused to Mr. VanderSloot that occurred because of those statements.”

Zuckerman said that he didn’t think “taking out ads critical of someone’s reporting is not gay bashing in my mind,” and that VanderSloot supports a campaign giving some protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Idaho, which he said he hopes VanderSloot continues to do.

VanderSloot was in the news last month when his lawsuit against Mother Jones was dismissed.  As iMediaEthics wrote, the magazine spent millions of dollars to fight the lawsuit over its 2012 article on VanderSloot and his donations to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Even though the lawsuit was dismissed, VanderSloot considered the ruling a victory because the judge made numerous comments in her ruling criticizing “Mother Jones‘ reporting styles, and indeed the general trend in political journalism.”

In a previous, July 10 affidavit sent to iMediaEthics, Zuckerman said the impact of the ad in his newspaper was stronger than the local radio that discussed his sexuality previously because he knew his readers, colleagues and sources would see the ad. Zuckerman’s affidavit also claimed that after the ad appeared, he received “more than once” a phone call from someone threatening to rape him with a handgun. He also said that while he had received “some attacks before the ad ran,” “the attacks after the ad were scarier and more vicious” and he only described those ads to Rachel Maddow. He said that before the ad was published, “I had a strong feeling that the vast majority of people I interacted with in Idaho did not know I am gay.”

The judge in VanderSloot’s case against Zuckerman, Bonneville County Senior District Judge Darla Williamson, was also the judge in the case against Mother Jones.

VanderSloot’s lawyer, Tom Clare, sent iMediaEthics VanderSloot’s lengthy statement on the settlement. VanderSloot maintained in his statement “we did not ‘out’ Peter” and that “as we have known since the beginning, the statements that Peter made on the Rachel Maddow show were simply not true.”

“Our goal was only to set the record straight and to clear my name,” VanderSloot said. “Peter’s affidavit does that. Our goal was never to harm Peter. This settlement takes away any further exposure that Peter would have had, had we gone forward to trial.”

“These lawsuits were never about money. Nor were they an effort to punish the defendants for their untruths and inaccuracies. They were simply an effort to clear our good name and to set the record straight,” he went on, saying that effort was achieved with the Mother Jones and Zuckerman cases.

Tom Clare, VanderSloot’s lawyer, argued Zuckerman’s affidavit apologizing is “significant because the Mother Jones article said a lot of those same things.”

iMediaEthics confirmed that VanderSloot didn’t sue MSNBC or Maddow. Clare told iMediaEthics “we were in touch with MSNBC and Rachel Maddow producers before Mr Zuckerman went on.”

“She took the information we provided and asked exactly the right questions,” Clare said, which is why MSNBC wasn’t sued.

Mother Jones noted in its story on Zuckerman’s settlement that “Mother Jones has paid for Zuckerman’s defense.”

To cover the costs of VanderSloot’s lawsuit against it, Mother Jones has had to initiate a fundraising campaign. While the lawsuit cost the magazine’s insurer more than two million dollars to defend, MotherJones paid “$650,000 out-of-pocket expenses.” First Look Media’s Press Litigation Fund announced it would “match $74,999 in donations.”

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Peter Zuckerman, Reporter Sued by Billionaire for Comments on Rachel Maddow, Apologizes in Settlement

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