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Tale of the Tape

The former Channel 5 news reporter Amy Jacobson saw her career and personal life derailed after a video showed her in a bikini at the home of a man under investigation after his wife’s disappearance. Now she hopes her lawsuit against Channel 2—the rival station that turned that visit into a sensational news story—will win her a measure of redemption

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As the tape played incessantly on cable TV and the Internet that week, Jacobson’s good name was sunk—if not by the images of her in a swimsuit, or by her abrupt firing from NBC-5, then by the media’s gleeful parroting of the story’s implication: that she and Stebic were enjoying a personal relationship. From Larry King Live to the Today show, from the Chicago Tribune to the New York Post, the press reveled in the story of the “bikini-clad reporter” at Craig Stebic’s “pool party.”

On Wednesday, the day after her firing, Jacobson tried to quell the innuendo and speculation. She told the Sun-Times media columnist Robert Feder and several local radio shows that she only knew Stebic professionally; that she went to his house that day because she “was trying to see what’s going on, and trying to see if we [could] do an interview”; and that she had dipped in the pool only because she had promised her sons they could go swimming that day. “I felt the way Channel 2 cut the piece together didn’t represent what was actually happening,” she told The Roe Conn Show.

Though Jacobson acknowledged in every interview that she’d had “a lapse in judgment,” the media tour did little to quiet her critics. On Friday, the Tribune’s media columnist, Phil Rosenthal, and chief business correspondent, David Greising, published an article reporting that the video was just “the latest incident over the past several years to cause bosses to lose their confidence in Jacobson’s judgment.” Most damningly, the article said that Jacobson had been briefing Plainfield police on her interactions with Stebic; depending on the nature, regularity, and depth of the brief­ings, that could be a conflict of interest and a breach of ethics.

But the allegations were made by anonymous sources, and NBC-5 management isn’t talking. In his blog on July 13, 2007, Eric Zorn quoted Jacobson as admitting that her bosses had indeed accused her of “getting too close to the police.” But Jacobson tells Chicago that in the long Monday meeting with her bosses, no one ever brought up her dealings with the police. “It was all about Craig Stebic, and that day,” she says.

Contacted by Chicago, Plainfield’s police chief, Donald Bennett, said Jacobson acted like any other reporter on the case. “They all called me, Puccinelli and Craig Wall from Fox,” he says. “They all share certain tidbits so [that] there’s some type of friendship. It’s like anything else: Communication is a two-way street in any business, and if you don’t give a little, you feel you’re not going to get any in return.”  

In any case, the Tribune article took on a life of its own. Carol Marin wrote a Sunday opinion column in the Sun-Times dubbing Jacobson a “police informant.” The Tribune devoted a Sunday editorial to the matter, writing: “As the full story comes out, though, it’s easy to see why [NBC-5] bosses fired her. They were right to do so.”

Recalls the Tribune’s Eric Zorn, who wrote about the brouhaha for several days on his blog: “She went on her day off to try to advance this story somehow. Suddenly she’s a national slut, and all these commentators are wagging their fingers at her.”

Meanwhile, though, a lot of the public was jumping to Team Amy. In three unscientific Web polls—at Zorn’s blog, wgnradio.com, and suntimes.com—voters who said she shouldn’t have been fired outnumbered those who agreed with the termination, by two or three to one. (Zorn’s poll drew nearly 7,000 votes, and the Sun-Times’s more than 18,000.) CBS-2 was getting heat from viewers, too—so much so, that it ran a special segment at the end of the week explaining how the station had landed the videotape. “[We want] to put to rest claims that we were stalking Amy Jacobson out of professional jealousy,” anchor Rob Johnson told viewers, “or that we ran out to [Plainfield] on a tip, to catch her doing something wrong.”

Though the Sun-Times had quoted Carol Fowler, the news director, on Wednesday as saying that “the tape fell into our lap”—leading many to believe that it had been given or sold to CBS-2—Johnson told viewers: “Puccinelli and our photographer went into a neighbor’s home and from a window of the neighbor’s home could see Stebic’s backyard. . . . He shot the video of the backyard with Jacobson in clear view; what we saw was what neighbors could see.”

***

Jacobson’s lawsuit initially named as defendants CBS-2, Stebic’s neighbor Tracy Reardon, and Weldon, the journalism professor. (The claims against Weldon were later folded into the claims against CBS-2; she is no longer being sued individually.) NBC-5 was not sued because the station didn’t violate the terms of Jacobson’s contract in firing her, according to Kathleen Zellner, Jacobson’s lawyer.

Should the case go to trial—that would be many months away—much of the dispute will focus on the right to privacy.

Privacy laws protect people from, among other things, a form of invasion of privacy called “intrusion upon seclusion”—which makes it illegal to photograph, videotape, or report on someone where, as the courts often put it, the person has “a reasonable expectation of privacy.”

Zellner plans to argue that Jacobson had that expectation—as did everyone else at Stebic’s house—due to the six- or seven-foot-tall privacy fence around the backyard. “When he put that tall wooden fence up, Mr. Stebic clearly created an expectation of privacy,” she says.

Steven P. Mandell, a Chicago lawyer who represents media companies for Mandell Menkes LLC, says intrusion upon seclusion cases usually involve filming inside someone’s home, say, or hacking into a computer. A lawsuit based on videotaping someone standing in a backyard—even if a tall privacy fence surrounds the yard—sounds like a “weak claim,” he says.

Mandell says that “it might get more interesting” if the defendant had used a telephoto lens to capture images that could not otherwise be seen by neighbors or passersby. “The notion is that if you have to use a technological means to look inside someone’s dwelling, then that is likely invasion of privacy,” he says. (Zellner says she plans to prove that a telephoto had to be—and was—used to get the images.)

Another media lawyer, Len Rubin, with the firm ReedSmith LLC, thinks that videotaping over a neighbor’s fence won’t be easy for CBS-2 to defend. “Stebic and Jacobson had an expectation of privacy because of the tall privacy fence,” he says. Because the law tries to strike a balance between the right to privacy and freedom of the press, he says, “CBS-2 will have to assert a defense of newsworthiness”—that is, that the scene they were videotaping was so newsworthy that it trumps Jacobson’s privacy rights.

Mandell says CBS-2 can make a strong argument that Jacobson’s poolside visit was indeed legitimate news. “She had been on TV reporting about a high-profile investigation [for two months],” he explains, “arguably projecting an air of independence and unbiased reporting. She is later seen at the home of the investigation’s central figure in a bathing suit with her two kids. That is arguably overcasual and unprofessional, and suggests that there is some sort of relationship that goes beyond just the professional. It’s reasonable to comment on that—and an argument can be made that it’s a newsworthy matter and of public concern.”

Zellner argues that CBS-2’s attempt to justify the story by saying it’s newsworthy is “pathetic.” “The case law is very clear: You cannot commit a crime using a hidden camera to get tape that you then call newsworthy. And how is it newsworthy, that she’s over there gathering information as a reporter?”

One point lingers: Did CBS-2 make the videotape, or did one of the neighbors? While the law gives the media an enhanced right to invade privacy to gather news, it doesn’t look kindly—even in the age of YouTube—on private citizens’ filming through windows and over neighbors’ tall fences. “‘Who did the taping?’ is my bottom-line question,” says Rubin.

Both CBS-2 and Reardon have said in recent court filings that the station’s cameraman shot the footage. But two days after CBS-2 aired its story on Jacobson, a man knocked on Tracy Reardon’s door. The man told her his name but didn’t tell Reardon that he was a private investigator hired by Kathleen Zellner. In a report made available to Chicago by Zellner, the investigator wrote that Reardon told him she made the tape and gave it to CBS-2. The report adds, “Clearly she does not like Jacobson. . . . I asked her why she hated Amy so much. She indicated that she did not like the way Amy covered the Stebic story and that she especially could not stand Stebic. . . .” (Reardon declined to be interviewed for this article.)

So, who shot the tape? Stay tuned.

As for the defamation claims, CBS-2, represented by lawyers Bryan Sher and Dimitry Shifrin of Bryan Cave LLP, declined interview requests made by Chicago. But in a motion to dismiss the case, filed in October, the lawyers argue—among many other points—that Zellner’s defamation claims are based on statements by Weldon, the Northwestern journalism professor, and that the quotes were “a classic expression of opinion that is protected by the First Amendment.”

***

A year and a half after the tape that torpedoed Jacobson’s career, she’s dealing with a different vein of issues. She has little income, and in September her husband moved out. “I didn’t want my marriage to end. Because I lost my job and I was depressed, I feel he made some poor choices,” she says. “But he is a good person and a good father to my children.”  

For his part, Anglada says that while his wife’s job loss played a part in the unraveling of the marriage, it “wasn’t the ultimate cause. There’s a lot of things that have to happen for a bridge to collapse.”

Despite the new battle of her pending divorce, Jacobson is starting to piece her life back together. She fills in occasionally as a news reader on WLS-890 AM radio, and she does a weekly two-hour gig on WIND-560 AM. She’s still a reporter at heart, she says, fanatically reading the papers and watching the news. “I do miss my job, a lot,” she says.

But she’s intent on looking forward. Asked if, given the chance, she would do anything differently regarding that July 6th day at Stebic’s, Jacobson says: “I can’t think about that. I had to go through a year of counseling about ‘Why didn’t I put my shirt on? Why didn’t I wear my big, frumpy maternity bathing suit? Why couldn’t I have had a flat tire on the way there?’ There are so many ‘what ifs.’ It was eating me up.

“But I know I didn’t do anything improper. And that’s what I live with: knowing that my heart was in the right place and that it was for the cause of the story.”

 

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