Friday, February 22, 2013

Defamation by Inference: The Pinup, the Reporters, & the Well-Placed Photo

June Cockran was a well-known figure around Indycar racing circles in the 1960s.  The buxom Ms Cockran was a Playboy playmate and then one of the original Ms. Hurst Shifters  (later supplanted by Linda Vaughn).  She appeared in low-cut glittery outfits at racetracks across the country.

In 1973, three reporters for the Indianapolis Star thought Ms. Cockran had information that would be helpful in their investigation of corruption in the Indianapolis Police Department.  Ms. Cockran was pressured by the reporters with statements about how her career would be damaged by bad publicity.  Ms. Cockran continued her non-cooperation.

A short time later, a news story appeared on the front page of the Indianapolis Star.  The headline read:  ""Pearcy Takes Personal Control of Grand Jury in Brothel Quiz".  "Pearcy" was Nobel Pearcy, the Marion County (IN) Prosecutor.  The headline was followed by an extensive story detailing Prosecutor Pearcy's investigation into area brothels and allegations that police were being paid off to protect the operations.  

 The front page story was illustrated with a large photo of June Cockran and her mother walking into the Grand Jury room accompanied by Prosecutor Pearcy.  The caption to the photo read:  "Ex-Bunny, Mom Meet Pearcy"

The problem was that Ms. Cockran's appearance before the Grand Jury had nothing to do with prostitution.  She was there to testify about her complaints that she was being harassed by certain police officers. This was mentioned in the story - but not until the "jump" page near the end of the article.

The newspaper argued that everything it said in it's article was true.  The Prosecutor was presenting evidence about operation of whorehouses in Indianapolis, and the photo did show Ms. Cockran, a former Playboy bunny, her mother, and the prosecutor.  

But the Court was not convinced.

Even though the statements were literally true, the juxtaposition of the headline, the text of the article, and the photo on the front page clearly supported an inference that Ms. Cockran was being called to testify before the Grand Jury about prostitution in Indianapolis.

The lesson from the case is that literal truth may not be enough to protect a writer from defamation claims.  Even where statements and/or photos are true, their juxtaposition may cause a defamatory inference.

The reported decision is Cochran v. Indianapolis Newspapers, Inc., 175 Ind.App. 548, 372 N.E.2d 1211 (1978).

photo credit: <a href="">Steve Rhodes</a> via <a href="">photopin</a> <a href="">cc</a>

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