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Former News-Press editor demands retraction

Jerry Roberts says he may sue for libel if the paper doesn't disavow a front-page story linking him to a computer that contained pornography.

April 24, 2007|Gregory W. Griggs and James Rainey | Times Staff Writers

The former executive editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press on Monday formally demanded a retraction of a front-page story that linked him to a workplace computer that contained pornography.

The Sunday article stated that Jerry Roberts worked on a computer that was later found to hold more than 15,000 images of child and adult pornography.

Roberts denied any connection to the pornography and said the computer had been used by at least two other editors before he joined the newspaper in May 2002.

"The story was false, defamatory and malicious and published with knowledge it was untrue," Roberts said.

"And even worse, journalistically, was they made no attempt to contact me before it was published. As a journalist, I think that's unconscionable."

An attorney representing the News-Press said a decision on a possible retraction would not be considered for several days until lawyers specializing in 1st Amendment issues could review the matter.

Roberts and eight other editors and reporters resigned from the News-Press last summer over what they considered inappropriate meddling by the publisher and owner, billionaire Wendy McCaw.

The retraction demand by Roberts' attorneys said the Sunday article, which did not carry a byline, referred to the desktop PC in question as "Mr. Roberts' computer" and erred when it said Roberts refused to be interviewed by Santa Barbara police.

The demand called for a News-Press retraction to appear on the front page of today's newspaper, "in the same position as [Sunday's] story."

Dennis G. Merenbach, Roberts' attorney, said that if a front-page retraction isn't forthcoming, his client will seek additional legal recourse, such as a libel suit. "It would be one where we would ask for very considerable damages," Merenbach said.

Ampersand Publishing, the holding company for the News-Press, earlier filed a $25-million arbitration claim against Roberts, saying he violated his employment contract through statements he made after his departure.

Bryce Nelson, a professor of journalism at USC's Annenberg School for Communication, said the News-Press story had "the appearance of a personal attack."

"The first sentence of the piece links Roberts to child pornography, but it doesn't seem that it is in any way proven or supported by the authorities, who did not press charges," Nelson said. It seemed unusual to run such a story with so little proof on the front page of a newspaper and without a byline, Nelson said. "These are not things reputable journalists do," he said.

But A. Barry Cappello, a lawyer representing the newspaper, said Monday that the media focus on Sunday's article missed the point.

"The company had a crime being committed on its premises.... Somebody at that paper at some time -- maybe it's a current employee or another former employee -- did this, but it is a crime. And we are going to root it out."

greg.griggs@latimes.com

james.rainey@latimes.com

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