Why You Missed One of Philly’s Best Schools Debates

When WHYY’s Chris Satullo accused City Paper‘s Daniel Denvir of libel, things got heated, then productive.

Something unusual happened to journalist Daniel Denvir last Wednesday: Another journalist in the city accused him of libel. Denvir, 29, works for the alternative-weekly City Paper. Young and aggressive, he has made a name for himself in the past few years by breaking big stories about politics and education. A lefty, he has also developed a reputation as a staunch critic of the city’s mainstream media (including, yes, Philadelphia magazine). It stings to be on the receiving end of a Denvir barb. But every city needs its media watchdogs, and Denvir is a talented one. He’s performing an important role.

Last Wednesday morning, Denvir posted another of his media critiques on the Naked City, City Paper‘s news blog. This time his target was Chris Satullo, WHYY’s executive director of news and civic dialogue. Satullo, you may recall, used to be the editorial-page editor at the Inquirer, until he leapt off that flaming ship in 2008 for the cool waters of public radio. Satullo is one of the most experienced journalists in the city. He now delivers regular commentaries on WHYY’s airwaves.

Denvir was provoked by Satullo’s commentary, which was also posted on WHYY’s Newsworks.org, about the Philly public schools—specifically, about the recent proposal to close 64 schools over five years and hand over many of the rest to private entities. In his piece, Satullo, who has long reported on education reform, conveyed a sense of cautious optimism about the proposal and blasted its critics as intransigent. He also said nice things about the five board members of the School Reform Commission, which released the plan: “I know two of those folks pretty well,” Satullo said, “and I know the rest well enough to believe they try to do what they think is best to educate the city’s children.”

On Naked City, Denvir wrote, “I’m not surprised that Satullo got this wrong. But it is striking in how many ways he managed to do so.” Then he rebutted Satullo, marshaling facts from his own reporting to make the case that school privatization is likely to be a mess. In perhaps his sharpest comment, Denvir highlighted Satullo’s testimony about the good intentions of the School Reform Commission members and used it to question Satullo’s credibility as a journalist: “Satullo starts out strong, establishing credibility with listeners: He is buddies with the powerful figures that he is supposed to be, as a journalist, covering.”

Four hours after Denvir’s blog post went live, he received an email from Satullo, which Denvir provided to me.

Daniel -

You can rip away on the content of my commentary any way you want; it’s fair game. A lot of what you said is off, in my view, but that’s OK. It makes for robust debate.

But taking my statement that I am familiar with the character and work of several SRC members, in that I’ve been a journalist in this town for a long time, and turning it into your statement that I’m buddies with people I cover, which is something I have never done and something a good journalist does not do, is in fact libel.

Members of the editorial board at the Inquirer can tell you the lengths I went to, even in that position where opinion was part of the job, not to take part in discussions of editorials that involved anyone with whom I had anything but a strictly professional relationship. If I have occasion to write about someone who’s a friend (e.g. Bryan Miller of Ceasefire) I say it in the piece.

I don’t sue for libel, but I did want you to know that what you said was complete, utter and unmitigated horseshit and if you had an ounce of class, you’d apologize to me, in person and on Naked City.

Here is Denvir’s response:

Dear Chris,

An apology? Please. Your “libel” claim is absurd. And I encourage you to make it publicly.

If I were you, I would instead be acutely embarrassed that my personal closeness with powerful figures was the basis for telling readers that those powerful figures are generally respectable and good-intentioned people. This is actually how you opened your piece. This is, Chris, the sort of intimacy with powerful interests that inspires public distrust of the mainstream media. Perhaps you’ve been at it so long that you cannot see this.

As for the rest of your article, I do welcome a rebuttal. Your commentary showed precious little regard for the factual record or relevant history.

Sincerely,

Dan

Satullo makes a fair point. Just because he’s familiar with the relevant figures in the education debate doesn’t mean he’s close to them in a way that would interfere with his reporting. But libel? Libel is published defamation. Defamation is the damaging of someone’s character with a falsehood. You can sue for libel in civil court. It’s common enough to see private citizens and public officials suing journalism organizations for libel. But journalists almost never sue other journalists, probably for reasons of sheer professional courtesy. The exception that proves the rule is the famous 1998 lawsuit by Philly investigative reporter Ralph Cipriano; Cipriano sued his own Inquirer editor for disparaging his work to a reporter from another newspaper.

Although Satullo says in his email that he doesn’t sue for libel, the mere mention of the L-word is a big deal. Whether someone has been libeled is really for a court to decide, but Satullo would seem to have a weak case. A libel plaintiff who is considered to be a public figure (like Satullo almost certainly would be) is required to prove that the defendant acted with “actual malice,” defined as either knowledge of falsity or a reckless disregard for the truth. Denvir’s blog post wasn’t malicious, though. He was criticizing the way that Satullo portrayed himself, quoting Satullo’s own words, in an earnest piece of writing about an issue of the highest public importance (school reform).

Denvir says he decided to share Satullo’s email because “I think it’s outrageous that one of Philadelphia’s most powerful journalists would use an empty libel accusation to bully a critic.” Denvir adds, “A libel accusation is serious and I am not content to leave it hanging over me.”

In a phone conversation with me on Friday, Satullo pointed out that he and Denvir are from different generations; maybe this helped to explain why they were clashing. Satullo says that he was “quite clear to Daniel in the very first email that I had no intention of suing.” He simply wanted to send a message. Denvir had attacked “my integrity as a journalist,” and he had done it without contacting Satullo for comment.

Says Satullo, “I thought, here is a young journalist who doesn’t seem to understand the consequences of what he’s doing. So I’m going to contact him privately and use strong language to get him to understand that you can’t make this kind of strong accusation without calling [the person].” (To the accusation that he didn’t contact Satullo first, Denvir responds, “It’s in no way standard to contact someone for comment before writing a piece of media criticism concerning a published article or commentary.”)

When asked why he didn’t simply engage Denvir in public—perhaps on Newsworks.org—Satullo says, “Seems to me if you have a problem with someone, you address it privately, and then you work it out.” He adds, “Does it do anybody any good for a couple journalists to get into a public pissing match that distracts from the real issue about what’s going on in the school district?”

After that initial email exchange, Satullo and Denvir continued to argue, at times fiercely, about journalistic protocol, but they also talked about the substance of school reform—the history, the charter-school innovators, the charter-school crooks. For instance, Satullo sent Denvir a lengthy email that laid out Satullo’s own personal history of education reporting and advocacy stretching back to 1979 and replied to the substantive points Denvir had made in his blog post. Satullo asked Denvir a question about his definition of the word “privatization”; Denvir answered it. Things cooled down. Over the weekend, Satullo and Denvir “smoked the peace pipe,” says Satullo, and ended their war. “When people keep talking, even after a bad start, things get worked out,” Satullo says. It’s just too bad that the public didn’t get to see these guys debate each other directly. Generational differences or no, in the end, the real mistake of WHYY’s director of civic dialogue is that he missed a chance to foster a pretty enlightening one.

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