Toby Reynolds: Media’s Scapegoat

CNN and other 24-hour news programs dropped all scheduled programming to cover the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College.  It was an important story and tragedies often drive ratings.

Listen to this report on WOAI radio:

Did you hear how he said that he is careful to release details because he is a bit more “hesitant” to give more details “because often they are wrong”? He accused an innocent man of murder.  He also got the age of the shooter wrong.  We didn’t listen to his entire show, because in 30 seconds we were able to prove our point- grossly reckless mainstream media run amok.

But it isn’t limited to the radio show you have never heard of.  CNN spent hours last night detailing the life of Toby Reynolds, although they never said his name.  They convicted him of the shootings at Oregon’s Umpqua Community College.  One reporter, Deborah Feyerick, repeatedly referred to Toby’s postings, youtube videos and the like and essentially said he is disturbed and should even be investigated even if he wasn’t the shooter, but he was the shooter and her sources were clear about that.  Who are her sources?  Who is rambling off about murder suspects who clearly, visibly isn’t the dead, armed suspect they have in custody?  Some of the “Lowlights” are located here:


Random websites did it, too.  Twitter followed suit.  We heard Fox News named Toby’s name as well, but do not have access to their feed from last night.  O’Reilly described the same guy, but said he wouldn’t say his name until it was confirmed.

What is the law?

Every state is different and figuring out jurisdiction is complicated.  Did the comments of CNN come from their studio in Atlanta where some of the production was and their primary headquarters is or New York City where the panelist was?  In What jurisdiction was Mr. Reynolds defamed?  Where he was sitting or where those who heard the defamation was?  All are likely true.

Since CNN is based out of Atlanta and I am licensed to practice law in Georgia, I will stick with Georgia law, but it is easy enough to apply basically the same law from any state.

In Georgia, the elements of a defamation claim are:

  • a false statement about the plaintiff (clear);
  • communication of the statement to a third party in the absence of a special privilege to do so (clear, but we will circle back to this);
  • fault of the defendant amounting at least to negligence (clear); and
  • harm to the plaintiff, unless the statement amounts to per se defamation. See Smith v. Stewart, 660 S.E.2d 822, 828 (Ga. Ct. App. 2008)(yes or yes).

Georgia recognizes that certain statements constitute defamation per se. These statements are so egregious that they will always be considered defamatory and are assumed to harm the plaintiff’s reputation, without further need to prove that harm. Under Georgia statutes, a statement is defamatory per se if it:

  • charges another person with a crime punishable by law (like mass murder);
  • charges another person “with having some contagious disorder or with being guilty of some debasing act which may exclude him from society (they did this, too).”

See Ga. Code Ann. §51-5-4.

The statute of limitations for defamation is one (1) year. Ga. Code Ann. § 9-3-33.

Under 51-5-4, Slander or oral defamation consists in:

  • Imputing to another a crime punishable by law (yes);
  • Charging a person with having some contagious disorder or with being guilty of some debasing act which may exclude him from society (yes); OR
  • Uttering any disparaging words productive of special damage which flows naturally therefrom (yes).

Further, as it relates to CNN, Section 51-5-10 governs the “Liability for defamatory statements in visual or sound broadcast; damages” and holds:

(a) The owner, licensee, or operator of a visual or sound broadcasting station or network of stations and the agents or employees of any owner, licensee, or operator shall not be liable for any damages for any defamatory statement published or uttered in or as a part of a visual or sound broadcast by one other than the owner, licensee, or operator or an agent or employee thereof, unless it is alleged and proved by the complaining party that the owner, licensee, operator or the agent or employee has failed to exercise due care to prevent the publication or utterance of the statement in the broadcast.  (It was broadcast over and over again even though their own panelists said it did not make sense).


(c) In any action for damages for any defamatory statement published or uttered in or as a part of a visual or sound broadcast, the complaining party shall be allowed only such actual, consequential, or punitive damages as have been alleged and proved.

Toby tried to clear his name and was ignored

Tom Winter, a “NBC News Investigations reporter based in NYC focusing on Police, Courts, Corruption, Financial Fraud, and Homeland Security stories across the Eastern U.S.” posted this BEFORE much of the harm was done:

Justice for Toby ReynoldsAnd:

Justice for Eggman

No one listened.

What does that mean?

It means it is still a tough case in the circumstances where Mr. Reynolds was NOT specifically named, even though the internet took what was being said on CNN, took it a step farther, posted about it and overwhelmed his youtube account with horrible messages.  His youtube video instantly went from 300 hits to over 60,000 in less than a day. The comments on those posts, the threats on social media, the blogs, the tweets all were a tidal wave which were caused by mainstream media describing Mr. Reynolds to a tee.  All you had to do was search “UCC shooter” or “Umpqua shooter” and people had taken CNN’s data and released the name of the only person fitting that description.

His case is likely one to make legal precedent.  For those who named him as the killer, we think it would likely reach the realm of actual malice which would entitle him to sue any media outlet in about any state.  For those blogs and websites which named him as the killer, there was pretty simple defamation.

The Lesson of Richard Jewell

In the early morning on July 27, 1996, during the Olympic Games in Atlanta, a pipe bomb exploded in the city’s Centennial Park, killing two people and injuring 111. Authorities actually (unlike here where the killer was known) focused on a security guard named Richard Jewell, who was previously praised for helping evacuate the area. The media, including Atlanta based CNN and NBC (which broadcasted the Olympics) were quick to publish the police suspicions.

The Secret Service, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the FBI interviewed Jewell on July 27, the day of the explosion, and again on July 28.  They considered him a witness, not a suspect.  By July 29, Jewell was the FBI’s “principal (though not the only) suspect in the CENTBOM investigation,’’ but another interview or arrest were “not considered urgent.”

On July 30, a writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote, “The security guard who first alerted police to the pipe bomb that exploded in Centennial Olympic Park is the focus of the federal investigation into the incident.”  The second sentence in the lead said Jewell also “fits the profile of the lone bomber.”  Part of the basis was, “He (Jewell), also has approached newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, seeking publicity for his actions.”   A CNN staffer was sent to get a copy of the paper, and they then read it on television and reported on it from there.

Jewell experienced great toll on his personal and professional life. He was completely exonerated, and Eric Robert Rudolph was later found to have been the bomber. In 2006, Georgia’s Governor publicly thanked Jewell for saving the lives of those at the Olympics.

After his exoneration, Jewell filed a series of lawsuits.  Jewell said the lawsuits were not about money, but were about clearing his name.

Richard Jewell v. NBC

Jewell sued NBC News for this statement, made by Tom Brokaw, “The speculation is that the FBI is close to making the case. They probably have enough to arrest him right now, probably enough to prosecute him, but you always want to have enough to convict him as well. There are still some holes in this case”. NBC stood by its story, but the network agreed to pay Jewell $500,000.

Richard Jewell v. New York Post

Jewell sued The New York Post for $15 million in damages, contending that the paper portrayed him in articles, photographs and an editorial cartoon as an “aberrant” person with a “bizarre employment history” who was probably guilty of the bombing. He settled with the newspaper for an undisclosed amount.

Richard Jewell v. CNN

CNN settled with Jewell for an undisclosed monetary amount, CNN maintained its coverage was fair and accurate.

Richard Jewell v. Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Jewell also sued the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. According to Jewell, it “pretty much started the whirlwind”.  In one article, the Atlanta Journal compared Richard Jewell’s case to that of serial killer Wayne Williams.

The newspaper was the only defendant that did not settle with Jewell. The lawsuit remained pending for several years, and became an important part of case law regarding whether journalists could be forced to reveal their sources. Jewell’s estate continued to press the case even after Jewell’s death but in July 2011, but all of its claims were ultimately rejected by the Georgia Court of Appeals. The Court concluded that “because the articles in their entirety were substantially true at the time they were published—even though the investigators’ suspicions were ultimately deemed unfounded—they cannot form the basis of a defamation action.” The same cannot be said here.

Final Words

Families lost children.  Children lost parents.  And media is so quick to be first to tell the story that they literally held Toby Reynolds before the Court of Public Opinion and sentenced him.  It’s a part of the problem- the bullies, the wrongdoers, the attempt to get it first over getting it right.  Ms. Feyerick, CNN and WOAI owe Toby Reynolds a sincere apology.

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