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Preacher sues `20/20,' alleging defamation

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July 25, 2007|Alana Semuels | Times Staff Writer

The Rev. Frederick K.C. Price may have two Bentleys, but a spokesman for his 22,000-member church says his Palos Verdes house doesn't boast 25 rooms and he definitely doesn't own a helicopter. A lawsuit Price filed Tuesday claims that ABC's "20/20" defamed him when it suggested otherwise, portraying him as a "hypocrite and thief" who financed an extravagant lifestyle with church funds.

Price, founder of the Crenshaw Christian Center, was featured in a "20/20" segment about well-heeled televangelists titled "Enough!" that the suit says "devastated, embarrassed and greatly humiliated" the 75-year-old. The suit also names Walt Disney Co., which owns ABC, and "20/20" co-anchor John Stossel.

In the March 23 segment, "20/20" ran a clip from a sermon Price delivered 10 years ago and displayed a still photo of the preacher as Stossel interviewed an activist who keeps tabs on how ministries spend congregants' donations. The suit calls the use of the clip "one of the most outrageous instances of 'out of context' editing in the history of television."

In the clip, Price declares, "I live in a 25-room mansion, I have my own $6-million yacht, I have my own private jet and I have my own helicopter and I have seven luxury automobiles."

In the full sermon, according to an excerpt provided by a spokesman for Price, he prefaced that by saying, "I was pointing out that there is such a thing as bad success. I said bad success is...." The sermon, which the suit says aired on Disney's Lifetime network, was about the importance of being a good Christian, and Price was quoting a hypothetical person with great material wealth who failed to follow a righteous path.

Price wasn't interviewed for the "20/20" segment. The suit says the defendants "never approached Dr. Price or the church to check their facts."

The suit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, seeks unspecified damages and accuses ABC of breaching "fundamental journalist guidelines" and acting "in reckless disregard" for the truth.

ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said he couldn't comment on the suit but noted that the network had run two retractions, one on "Good Morning America" and the other on "20/20." ABC also posted a retraction on its website.

"We did make a full retraction and apology on the air and certainly regretted the error and made that very clear to Rev. Price," Schneider said.

In the retraction, Stossel said "20/20" had thought Price was talking about himself in the sermon. "We used his quote out of context, and for that we apologize to Dr. Price and to the Crenshaw Christian Center and to you if we misled you," Stossel said.

Price's lawyer, Anthony Glassman, said the retraction was insufficient.

"He was wrongly and falsely portrayed," Glassman said.

Price owns the Palos Verdes mansion that appeared in the "20/20" segment, as well as two Bentleys, but not a helicopter, a yacht or a private jet, a spokesman for the church said. Price bought the house in 1989, and one of the Bentleys was a gift from two parishioners, the spokesman said.

The suit says Price's salary is "commensurate with his duties," and the spokesman declined to disclose it.

Over three decades, Price built his ministry in part on the idea that followers can reach economic prosperity by living a faith-based life. His Sunday services in the 10,000-seat FaithDome in South L.A. are popular, but he is perhaps best known for his "Ever Increasing Faith" television show, paid programming on the Lifetime network.

The Crenshaw Christian Center opened in Inglewood in 1973, with 300 parishioners. The center purchased the former Pepperdine University Los Angeles campus in 1984 and built the current complex.

According to Nielsen, the "20/20" segment was seen by 7.5 million viewers.

The suit also cites a teaser for the segment that ran during "Good Morning America" and showed Price preaching at Crenshaw Christian Center. After the teaser, Diane Sawyer and anchors expressed shock that preachers owned private jets and multimillion-dollar yachts.

The "20/20" segment angered many of Price's parishioners and has been a subject of discussion at Sunday services for several weeks.

On Sunday, Angela Evans, one of Price's daughters and the president of the church, said in a speech during the regular service that the program was "dishonest, defamatory and simply filled with blatant lies," and that her father "feels like he's been raped." She received a standing ovation.

Congregants expressed their support for Price and disdain for "20/20."

"It's obviously so outlandish," said Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson's former sidekick, who has attended the church for 15 years. "I know the man quite well, and there's no possible way" that Price would ever dip into church coffers.

After listening to Price's sermon -- which began, "Why do so many Christians fail to enjoy the abundant life?" -- parishioner Mary Grimes said that Price deserved to live well.

"In the regular world, if he was a CEO, he'd get a penthouse and airplanes," she said. "I give abundantly because I want him to be pampered."

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alana.semuels@latimes.com

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