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No Winner in Dispute Over Rosie Magazine

A judge decides not to award damages in the highly publicized trial between the entertainer and her publisher.

November 13, 2003|Thomas S. Mulligan | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The bitter lawsuit pitting Rosie O'Donnell against her former publisher -- a battle that attracted more attention than the short-lived Rosie magazine ever did -- fizzled out Wednesday when the judge said neither side deserved damages because it's doubtful the magazine would have made any money.

"It seems to me that aside from the issue of attorneys' fees, we're just dealing with bragging rights here -- who wins and who loses," state Supreme Court Justice Ira Gammerman said, calling publisher Gruner & Jahr USA's breach-of-contract lawsuit against O'Donnell "ill-conceived."

Gammerman invited lawyers for both sides to submit final written arguments for damages and legal fees by Dec. 17, but he made it clear that he was unlikely to award damages.

O'Donnell, in one of the feisty curbside news conferences that punctuated the trial, declared herself satisfied.

"I'm happy about the fact that this is finally over," the entertainer said. "We can have peace in this world."

Gruner & Jahr, a unit of German media giant Bertelsmann, still intends to push for damages in its filing next month, one of its lawyers, Martin S. Hyman, said in an interview Wednesday.

The dispute arose from Gruner & Jahr's attempt to revive fading McCall's magazine by rebranding it around the personality of O'Donnell, a movie actress and popular TV talk-show host with a Long Island accent and a boisterous manner.

Rosie was launched in April 2001 with a circulation of 3.5 million copies. The magazine met with early success and critical praise but weakened and began losing circulation within a year.

According to testimony during the trial, there were frequent clashes between O'Donnell and editors at the magazine, leading to the celebrity's September 2002 decision to sever all ties to the publication.

Gruner & Jahr filed a $100-million breach-of-contract suit against O'Donnell, saying she torpedoed the magazine by walking away from it. Hyman said the magazine was about to turn the corner to profitability when O'Donnell left.

O'Donnell countersued for $125 million, contending that the publisher had breached its contract by taking away her editorial control and had tried to "cook the books" to make it appear that the magazine was performing better than it was.

Gruner & Jahr denied any financial manipulation.

The trial became a media event, with both sides slinging mud and O'Donnell offering acerbic commentary for the cameras at the close of each day's proceedings.

O'Donnell asserted that the publisher tried to frustrate her efforts to tackle controversial subjects, while Gruner & Jahr countered that she bullied staffers with obscenity-laced tirades.

To media watchers, the trial generated hot celebrity copy but raised no significant issues.

"I've been paying zero attention," said Columbia University journalism professor Todd Gitlin. "I really don't think it matters."

Michael Wolff, media columnist for New York magazine, said the strangest thing about the case was that it didn't get settled before trial, considering how damaging the testimony was to the reputations of both sides.

"It's really, really bizarre for this to go to court," he said. "Obviously, it's a dramatic loss any way you cut it for Gruner & Jahr. The Germans don't like to lose money, but even less do they like bad press."

Lawrence Grossberg, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina, ventured that it might be getting harder for celebrities to leverage success in one type of pursuit into success in another -- the way that Madonna, for example, has moved from music to film, books, advertising and fashion.

Of O'Donnell, he added: "It's not clear to me what the basis of her fame was."

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Associated Press and Reuters were used in compiling this report.

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