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The libel case you haven’t read about in the Projo or heard about on WPRO

July 29, 2010

A delicious, only-in-Rhode-Island libel suit is playing out in Superior Court. It pits prominent Providence restaurateur Bob Burke against  Providence Journal reporter Katherine Gregg and WPRO’s Dan Yorke.
Burke, owner of the Pot Au Feu and the Federal Reserve and a local boulevardier, is suing the ProJo and WPRO over a St. Patrick’s Day event at the Federal Reserve in 2009.
The event was the annual `Murphy’s Law’ time held by former House Speaker Bill Murphy of West Warwick. It is the usual St. Patty’s blarney-washed luncheon; pols, lobbyists, Smith Hill hangers on and business leaders (which some years included ProJo publisher Howard Sutton) dine on corned beef and each other, with jokes and roasts the fare of the day. It somewhat resembles the Providence Newspaper Guild Follies _ with a smaller crowd and gentler jokes. The money raised by the `Murphy’s Law’ event goes to charities.
Once the luncheon was on the record, as is the famous politician-clotted Boston St. Pat’s day breakfast. But Murphy decided a few years back to shut it down to the press after a ProJo scribe questioned the taste of  a homosexual joke by Murphy aimed at then-Majority Leader Gordon Fox, (Fox is openly gay, is close to Murphy and approved the joke in advance, but no matter, Murphy decided he didn’t want jokes misconstrued)
So Murphy decided to hold the luncheon off-the-record, meaning that reporters could attend the event but could not report about it. This led to many reporters (including yours truly and ProJo columnist Ed Fitzpatrick) simply skipping it.
Gregg apparently took great umbrage at the off-the-record status of the time and blamed Burke, in part at least, for the gag rule. Burke asserts that the decision to hold to the off-record status was up to Murphy. Burke also says that Gregg “published a deliberately
false statement of fact.’’
Gregg’s article, titled the `Hush of the Irish’ ran in the paper’s Political Scene column.(A version also appeared on the web site.) It stated that Murphy and Burke “banned reporters from disclosing what was said at the Murphy’s Law luncheon.’’
Burke asserts that he told Gregg that the decision to close the event was not his and that it was solely Murphy’s. Burke asserts that Gregg knew this and went ahead and tarred him anyway. Larry Berman, spokesman for Murphy, says his recollection is that Burke is essentially correct and that it was Murphy’s decision to hold the time off the record. But Berman also said that Burke’s name may have appeared on a joint Murphy-Burke press release announcing the event and ground rules
In retrospect, Berman says, it probably wasn’t a wise decision to hold it off the record because that in the end caused more strum and drang that it was worth. “What the speaker was trying to do was say to reporters, look I like and respect the people in the press and I want you to come to the lunch but we would prefer that you didn’t write about it.’’
Yorke’s role in all this reveals much about talk radio and how laughably stupid and demeaning it is. Yorke, who isn’t as dumb as he is paid handsomely to act, took Gregg’s ProJo web site report and went ballistic on his talk show. During his rant, Yorke called Burke a “piece of garbage. Rhode Island needs an enema and it ought to start with Bob Burke.’’ Of Burke, Yorke said, “That Bob Burke thinks he can control the First Amendment. You can kiss my Irish ass, you manipulative piece of garbage.’’
It didn’t end there. “My wife and I have enjoyed Pot Au Feu on x number of occasions. But you’ll never see me in either one of those two places. Don’t invite me to your wedding at Federal Reserve because I’m not going. You know why? Because we don’t need people like that in this town….that is a mob tactic Bob Burke just used on me,’’ said Yorke. “You will never see me at any one of his two places because he stinks of the full Rhode Island.’’
Burke is labeled “stupid’’ and a “punk, mob type actor.’’
Yorke blathers on and on in what becomes a florid caricature of a talk radio host.
Ok, Ok, so the RI gang of 500 is by now in stitches, laughing and asking collectively if there could be three more self-important people in the state than Yorke, Gregg and Burke. (How about a reality TeeVee show with just the three of them on a desert island)
There is so little at stake here. This isn’t about the Pentagon Papers or Watergate; there is no cosmic journalistic significance in this one. It’s about a long-forgotten time thrown by a former House speaker, who, unlike so many other State House (where have you gone Gerry Martineau?) bigwigs, left office with his head high and his reputation (and family) intact.
A Polscene clarification probably could have taken the Journal off  Burke’s radar.
Yet, there are serious legal issues here and the Journal won’t give up this ghost easily. And it shouldn’t. The newspaper contends that both Burke and Murphy‘s aides put out the word that the event would be off-the-record. The newspaper also asserts that Burke is a public figure, an important distinction in a libel suit. The bar for winning a libel suit is exceptionally high for someone the legal system rules is a public figure. This will be a crucial matter should the case move forward. (You can be the judge of whether it is worth the taxpayers hard-earned resources to adjudicate this one in state courts.)
The Journal is represented by local super lawyer Joseph Cavanagh. Cavanagh is a wily veteran of many years spent litigating First Amendment cases on behalf of the ProJo and advising top editors on touchy articles.  He is one former Harvard hockey All-American who has an excellent record of winning such fights, especially what can be viewed as essentially a nuisance case _ which this one may ultimately be seen as.
WPRO’s lawyers say the station, a subsidiary of Citadel Broadcasting, is in bankruptcy and cannot be sued at present. The station’s lawyer also argues that Yorke’s rant amounted to privileged speech because he disclosed that his opinions came from the ProJo.  And the radio company argues that because Burke called the Yorke show that day to discuss the journalistic rules for the event and because Burke is a State House food vendor, that the restaurant owner is a “limited public figure.”
This being Rhode Island, it doesn’t of course, end here. The judge so far is Judge Brian Stern, a former top aide to Governor Don Carcieri (how else would someone with Stern’s thin courtroom experience ever become a Superior Court Judge?).
Stern should recuse himself from this one in the interest of fairness. What Gregg does very well is expose insider dealing at the State House. She is a tenacious reporter and Stern ended up in her cross-hairs when he was carrying State House water for Carcieri. For this reason he would do well to step aside and let a more disinterested judge handle the matter.

One Comment leave one →
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