Puffing Over Huffington

Beware the blue pencil--it can run up quite a bill. In late January, the editorial page staff of the New York Post carved up an opinion piece by syndicated columnist Arianna Huffington before publishing it. Last week, the Post's editing became the subject of a $25 million libel suit.

On March 5, Shelia Lawrence, the widow of disinterred former ambassador Larry Lawrence, launched the suit, based on a Huffington column suggesting that Ms. Lawrence once had an affair with Bill Clinton.

In a statement, Lawrence said: "These vicious charges are absolutely false and unconscionable. I had a trusting, loving and faithful relationship with my husband. The lies circulated by Ms. Huffington have caused me enormous pain."

Lawrence's suit, which was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, names Huffington and her syndicator, Creators Syndicate; Lawrence filed a separate claim against the National Enquirer for a related story. Not included as defendants were the newspapers--such as the Post, San Diego Tribune, and Chicago Sun-Times--that published the column in question.

The Post is the only newspaper referred to by name in the libel suit; the sole attached exhibit is a reprint of the Huffington column downloaded from the Post's Web site (where her name was rendered "Adrianna" Huffington).

Complicating the case is that Huffington says the Post ran a draft version a day before the column was intended for publication. "Normally, I file my columns on Thursday," Huffington explained to the Voice. "But I faxed a draft of the column I'm being sued over to the major papers that print me the night before, on Wednesday night." The Post published a version of that column on Thursday, January 22.

Entire sentences appeared in the Post's version that were not in the authorized version of the column, and a pivotal section of Huffington's piece was, she says, misprinted by the Post's editorial page.

For example, one of the opening sentences in the Post version said that the alleged Clinton-Lawrence affair had "been widely discussed in the upstairs-downstairs world of the Lawrence family's staff, many of whom had to sign confidentiality agreements when they were fired."

But in the Creators Syndicate version--which Huffington provided to the Voice--there is no sentence that even resembles this. The only mention of the Lawrence family staff comes well down in the column, and at no point did Huffington say that former staffers discussed any affair.

Furthermore, in the Post's version, a key sentence ran outside of quotation marks: "Apparently [Lawrence's] greatest leverage was his having turned a blind eye toward Clinton's affair with his wife," said the column. That sentence, Huffington now maintains, was supposed to have been a quotation from a source ("a close friend of Lawrence's") cited in the previous sentence. In all other papers that printed the column, Huffington claims, the sentence ran, as intended, as a quotation. (Chances are Huffington would be legally responsible for the sentence either way, although it might not have been picked up as widely had it run the way Huffington says it was intended.)

Lawrence's libel suit zeroes in on this sentence, calling it "false and defamatory per se," and arguing that it exposed Lawrence to "contempt, ridicule and obloquy."

It could not immediately be determined why the Post so thoroughly altered Huffington's prose. Post editorial page editor John Podhoretz did not return phone messages; the paper's spokesman said: "The Post has no comment."

As of Monday, the Post, which normally has saturation coverage of every scandal associated with Clinton, had not carried any news account of the suit against Huffington nor any reference to its own role. (On Sunday, however, Post columnist Cindy Adams did plug Huffington's upcoming book.)

This is not the first time the Post editorial page staff has been accused of creative editing. In February, copy editor Roger Franklin was fired from the Post after inserting sentences into a letter to the editor written by radio producer Scott Pellegrino.

Huffington expressed surprise that she and the syndicate are the only ones being sued in this case. Asked if her husband's personal wealth might make her a target, she said: "I don't think so, because I don't have as much money as Rupert Murdoch," the Post's owner.

At no point has Huffington said definitively that Lawrence and Clinton slept together, or named any person who claims to have knowledge of it. On January 22, when the legally challenged column had already run in the Post, Huffington appeared on CNBC's Equal Time and said: "Having talked to many people close to the Lawrences, including former staffers, I've come to the conclusion--we're not there yet in terms of proving it--that Shelia Lawrence had had an affair with the president, and that her husband was aware of it [and] used that to pressure the president and get his nomination [emphasis added]."

Even this past weekend, Huffington would not say for certain that an affair had occurred. Rather, in a Voice interview, Huffington defended her column by arguing that the mere allegation of a Lawrence-Clinton affair was a legitimate news story, given that Lawrence was about to be called to testify in the Paula Jones case.

"When she was being subpoenaed, the rumors [of Lawrence's affair with Clinton] went from the realm of rumors to the realm of news," Huffington argues.

Huffington is being represented by Gary Bostwick, a First Amendment attorney probably best known for having defended Janet Malcolm in the multiyear lawsuit brought by Jeffrey Masson.

Huffington appears to be taking the lawsuit in stride. On Monday, she was quite happy to discuss it on CNN's Burden of Proof, and the column she submitted to Creators on Monday began: "It's official--I'm finally a real American....I've been sued."

Fax Tax

A notice went out last week from the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post news service, informing those who write and send press releases that, from here on out, they will be charged if they choose to fax their releases.

"We're no longer accepting press releases at [the usual] number," said the unsigned statement. "They're simply being discarded." Offering up a 900-number, the news service said: "Your organization will be charged $2 for the first minute, $1 for each additional minute. For this amount, we will forward your press release to the proper correspondent or department at the Los Angeles Times or The Washington Post."

Rob Cleland of the news service said the policy was established two months ago to reduce the "hundreds" of unsolicited press releases his service receives. He said the service has already seen a 15 to 20 per cent drop in unsolicited releases. "We're not doing this to make money or anything," Cleland said, adding that two papers in Florida and the Dallas Morning News have had a pay-for-faxing policy for some time.

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    Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie

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