The newest episode of Weeds, “Fran Tarkenton” aired Monday November 8, 2010 on Showtime. The sixth season of the hit series follows the pot-peddling Botwins on the run across America, after Shane kills a Mexican crime boss. “Fran Tarkenton” features Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) giving an interview to a reported named Vaughn Coleman (Eric Lang). Vaughn has been following Nancy suspiciously and when she confronts him, Vaughn reveals himself to be a journalist from a news station in San Diego, who has been assigned the task of writing Nancy’s story.
Nancy agrees to an interview after Vaughn threatens to make up the missing parts of her story if she will not give him the information he needs. Nancy starts to give him completely bogus information, but Vaughn already knows a lot more than Nancy expected. Vaughn’s theory behind Nancy’s disappearance is that Shane (Nancy’s youngest son) killed Pilar Zuzua, the Mexican crime boss, which is true. Nancy needs to protect her family and so agrees to be more forthcoming. Should Vaughn Coleman decide to fill in the blanks of Nancy’s story with deliberate false information, Nancy may have a defamation claim against him.
Defamation, which consists of both libel and slander, is defined by case law and statute in California. See Cal. Civ. Code §§ 44, 45a, and 46.
The elements of a defamation claim are:
publication of a statement of fact
that is false,*
has a natural tendency to injure or which causes “special damage,” and
the defendant’s fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence.
If Vaughn were to include false statements in his publication of Nancy’s story, all the elements would be satisfied. When the story is actually published, it will include statements of fact about Nancy Botwin’s life. The information uncovered by Vaughn is unprivileged, and his fault in publishing the statement would amount to at least negligence, if he does intentionally make up missing parts of the story. The element requiring injury would most likely be easily satisfied, given that Nancy’s story is rife with criminal activity and immoral behavior. If Vaughn makes up one fact to supplement any truths of Nancy’s life, that fact will most likely be injurious to Nancy and her reputation, due to the scandalous nature of her story.
California’s Anti-SLAPP laws could become an obstacle to Nancy’s possible defamation claim. SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation.” Anti-SLAPP laws include protection for reporters concerning defamation claims. In the defamation suit, Simpson Strong-Tie Company, Inc. v. Gore, the Ninth Circuit stated that a statement would not be regarded as defamatory if it were “substantially true.”
A statement is not false for purposes of a defamation claim if it is substantially true. (Vogel, supra, 127 Cal.App.4th at p. 1021.) Liability is precluded “‘”if the substance of the charge be proved true, irrespective of slight inaccuracy in the details.”
“It is sufficient if the defendant proves true the substance of the charge, irrespective of slight inaccuracy in the details, ‘so long as the imputation is substantially true so as to justify the “gist or sting” of the remark’”
So, if Vaughn’s story ends up publishing mostly true statements about Nancy’s life, any supplemented information may be viewed as a slight inaccuracy by California courts. Vaughn’s false information must be the type of false statement that would injure Nancy’s reputation more than the true statements, or the general gist of her story already did for the defamation claim to succeed.
Vaughn ends up giving Nancy cash for the interview. Though this is not a legal issue, Vaughn broke one of the commandments of good journalism: “Though shalt not pay for information,” according to an article in the American Journalism Review. Though the practice of paying for interviews is viewed as taboo, it is not altogether uncommon according to the AJR. It is technically okay under the Radio-Television News Directors Association’s Code of Ethics to purchase information, but the practice of “checkbook journalism” is generally discouraged.