Allentown Morning Call, After Botching Coverage of Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka Murder Case, Botches Coverage of Prosecutor James Martin’s SLAPP Suit Against Critic Bill Villa

Published September 1st, 2017, Uncategorized

by Irvin Muchnick

 

As part of its rare and spotty coverage of an outrageous, though mostly neglected, case with chilling First Amendment implications, the Allentown Morning Call erred about a basic fact in a rushed story on a largely inconsequential element of the dispute. When Concussion Inc. queried the publisher about what I feel is the low priority it places on the public interest, Robert York then engaged in a filibustering email exchange that would be priceless if it weren’t such a depressing snapshot of the deterioration of American journalism and American values.

I’ve mentioned before the defamation lawsuit against a local blogger critic, Bill Villa, by thin-skinned and abusive James Martin, the long-time district attorney. See “Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka Murder Trial Delay Combines With District Attorney’s Defamation Lawsuit to Expose Rot at Core of Lehigh County Criminal Justice,” March 15, 2016, http://concussioninc.net/?p=10826.

On August 16 online, and in print the next day, the Morning Call published a story, under the byline of Peter Hall, headlined “Appeals court orders new look at files in Lehigh DA’s defamation lawsuit.” Though Villa immediately pointed out the mistake therein, the Call took up to six days before posting this correction at its website:

 

“Note;[sic] This story was updated to clarify that WAEB radio host Bobby Gunther Walsh and iHeart Communications Inc. filed a motion in Lehigh County Court seeking records relating to criminal prosections [sic] by the Lehigh County District Attorney’s office, disciplinary complaints against Lehigh County District Attorney Jim Martin and records of Martin’s income as evidence in their defense against Martin’s defamation lawsuit against Walsh, iHeart Communications and Allentown blogger Bill Villa.”

 

The article’s lead paragraph read, “A judge must reconsider his decision ordering District Attorney Jim Martin’s office to turn over records of drunken-driving cases in his defamation lawsuit against Allentown blogger Bill Villa, whose daughter died in a 2006 alcohol-related crash.”

Originally, the Call had characterized this procedural ruling as a key loss for Villa, but he wasn’t even the party who had moved for opening up Martin’s drunk-driving case files and other records.

That party was Villa’s co-defendant radio station, which has broadcast some of his withering criticisms of Martin and his courthouse cronies. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QORckVcfpnM&list=PL55m7OZjE5pIauyaEgQt6K48Ym5e2lyr9.) These include private but well-connected area lawyers, and those in and out of the district attorney’s office at various times.

The latter group is headed by Martin’s mentor and predecessor, now a senior state judge, William Platt. He was the prosecutor who sent a strong whiff of male cow dung wafting through Lehigh Valley with his 1983 decision not to charge Jimmy Snuka in the death of the famous wrestler’s girlfriend Nancy Argentino.

I want to move on as quickly as possible to the larger issue in this recent mistake by the Call (currently owned by a spinoff remnant of the once-proud Tribune Company). But for those you interested in getting into the deep weeds, Villa makes a compelling circumstantial case that reporter Hall and the newspaper — who, incidentally, never even contacted Villa for comment — must have been giddy at the prospect of rushing into print an apparent setback for the target of what properly should be labeled a SLAPP suit by DA Martin. (SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.”)

The conduit for the flawed information first published by the Call may well have been (likely was? almost certainly was?) Martin “executive aide” and communications flack Debbie Garlicki, one of courthouse reporter Hall’s predecessors at the newspaper. For more on Garlicki and her fellow ink-stained wretches in Allentown, see “Allegations of Conflicts and Influence-Peddling in Lehigh County District Attorney’s Office Are As Old As the Jimmy Snuka Murder Cold Case Itself,” September 30, 2015, http://concussioninc.net/?p=10394.

Martin v. Villa, though hyper-parochial in one sense, is representative of universal attacks on free speech by public officials.

Verbal evisceration of his targets is at the center of content and commentary at Villa’s blog “Lehigh Valley Somebody,” http://bloggingdottie.blogspot.com. Whether you’re a huge fan of Villa’s style is not really the point. When I told Villa that some liken it to a machete, he said, “I think it’s more like a scalpel.” The discomfort engendered by publication of the truth is something with which I’m familiar.

To the extent that his main or only goal might be retributive justice for the entitled brat drunk driver who killed Villa’s 25-year-old daughter Sheena 11 years ago, I am not always in 1,000 percent agreement. I have made the same disclaimer in my criticism of the too-little and too-late prosecution of the late Jimmy Snuka — as I am more interested in accountability for the police and prosecutors who let criminals get away with it than I am in seeing individual miscreants fry. But I say so modestly, in recognition that I haven’t walked two moons in the moccasins of bereaved father Villa or of murder victim Nancy Argentino’s dear sisters (and my friends) Louise and Lorraine.

The main problem the Call seems to have in providing its readers with the decent news articles and editorials they deserve on this appalling SLAPP suit is that the mainstream press is threatened by Villa’s tenacity. Well, there’s tenacity and there’s tenacity. Donald Trump is tenacious, too, but he’s also a serial and provable liar of astounding proportions. Villa does his homework.

Let’s get back to publisher York’s emails to me. Their texts have been uploaded in full to http://muchnick.net/callpublisheremails.pdf.

York started by cataloguing what he called “premises/assumptions” I was “working off.” The jewel of these was my supposed bias that “Criminal justice in LV is more flawed than the norm.”

My response here was an invitation to York (or anyone) to read everything I’ve written about Snuka, Lehigh Valley justice, and the media role in same, and to come to his or her “own conclusion as to whether Im saying your region is exceptionally corrupt, or par for the course. Certainly, our business is about exposing gaps between the real and the ideal.”

With York’s bid to get his community and his newspaper graded on the curve out of the way, he got down to brass tacks.

  • York said the error in Hall’s story amounted to a simple misreading of the appellate court’s decision.
  • York disputed Villa’s contention that the online time-stamp on the correction was, at least at first, doctored so as to mislead readers. (I say: Villa’s meticulous timeline suggests otherwise. See https://www.scribd.com/document/356954165/Morning-Call-Caught-Lying-Again.)
  • York said it’s standard operating procedure to reach out to litigants’ counsel for comment, and Villa’s did not get back to the reporter. “Neither Martin or Villa were called to comment on this procedural ruling. When final disposition of this case occurs and depending on the outcome – each will be asked to comment.”

I’ve left the worst for last, and without the strictures of bullet points. In raising my concern that this was a SLAPP case and that the Call was enabling it with sparse news coverage and no editorial comment, when it cries out for both, I specifically said I was referring to anti-SLAPP principles. Not to whether the abuses of Martin — a powerful figure enjoying longstanding relationships in the local courts as he resorts to “private” litigation — are actionable under current Commonwealth of Pennsylvania statutes that either govern or ignore same.

And yet … talk about Pennsylvania’s weak anti-SLAPP laws, as an excuse for the Allentown Morning Call’s poor coverage, was exactly what publisher Robert York proceeded to do.

“Pennsylvania has a very narrow anti-SLAPP statute mostly used in enforcement of environmental issues,” he demurred.