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Monday, January 29,2001

Coal operator sues Beacon Journal over portrayal of him in article

By Athens NEWS Staff
Ohio coal operator Robert Murray has filed a billion-dollar lawsuit against the media corporation that owns the Akron Beacon Journal, claiming the paper defamed him in a recent article that was part o...

Ohio coal operator Robert Murray has filed a billion-dollar lawsuit against the media corporation that owns the Akron Beacon Journal, claiming the paper defamed him in a recent article that was part of a series on the state's coal-burning utilities.

Contacted Friday, Beacon Journal public editor Gloria Irwin said the paper would make no comment on the suit until it was served with the complaint and had a chance to examine it.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in the Belmont Common Pleas Court Thursday, include Murray and three Belmont County companies he heads: The Ohio Valley Coal Co., the American Coal Sales Co., and the Ohio Valley Transloading Co.

Names as defendants are Knight-Ridder, Inc., the Florida-based corporation that owns the Beacon Journal; Knight-Ridder CEO P. Anthony Ridder; Beacon Journal staff writer Margaret Newkirk, who wrote the offending article; and Beacon Journal publisher John L. Dotson, Jr., general manager James N. Crutchfield, and executive editor Janet C. Leach.

The front-page article that triggered the suit ran Jan. 9, under the headline, "Mine Owner Isn't the Shy, Quiet Type." Basically a profile of Murray and his position in the Ohio coal industry, it portrays him as bombastic and self-aggrandizing.

The article states, among other things, that Murray "yells a lot," treats his workers in a paternalistic fashion, and is prone to indulge in "hyperbole" which makes "even his friends roll their eyes."

Among the quotes in the story is one from former coal lobbyist Neal Tostenson, who reportedly told the Beacon Journal that Murray "tends to exaggerate a good bit." The story also claims that Murray's competitors in the coal industry "jokingly" refer to him as "Honest Bob."

Attorney Michael O. McKown, general counsel for the Coal Services Group, a group of companies that do business with Murray, is listed as a contact person on the press release announcing the lawsuit. Contacted Friday, the attorney claimed that neither Murray nor people who work with him are aware of his ever being referred to as "Honest Bob."

"Nobody's ever heard of that before," he declared.

McKown noted that Murray's suit does not actually demand $1 billion in damages (which it could not do legally), but does contend that this figure reflects the potential economic losses the plaintiffs feel could be caused by the story.

The lawyer said that Murray is "very careful to be on good terms with his utility customers," and argued that if Newkirk's story causes customers to avoid dealing with him or his companies, "it has a significant impact on his business opportunities."

In a press release, Murray states that his "main concern is that the dishonest, malicious, and deceitful statements in the article have endangered the operations of our companies and thousands of jobs in Belmont County and the surrounding area." He claims that by allegedly casting doubt on "our impeccable reputation for honesty and integrity," the article has endangered his ability to obtain financing for mining projects and performance surety bonds, secure long-term contracts with utilities, and "achieve rapport with regulators and those who form public policy affecting the coal industry..."

If Murray wins a settlement, the release promises, the first $39,960,000 of any award will be distributed to the 444 employees of his companies in Belmont County -- which works out to $90,000 per employee. Any remaining monies, it states, will be put into a charitable foundation to benefit the charities and citizens of Belmont, Guernsey, Harrison, Jefferson, Monroe, and Noble counties.

The lawsuit alleges that Newkirk's article is "directed almost entirely to the professional and personal integrity of Robert E. Murray" and his companies, and "libels them in words readily understandable to the average reader, causing profound damage. The damages resulting from this news article remove it from the realm of an ordinary libel case because of the serious economic effect on plaintiff's business and the thousands of jobs provided directly and/or indirectly" by Murray's companies.

The suit goes on to claim that given "the paramount economic importance of the coal industry in Belmont County, it does not overstate the nature of this case to say that the damages from the libel detailed (in the complaint) have, and will continue to have, a devastating impact on not only plaintiffs and their employees but the entire community as well."

The story on Murray was part of a series, entitled "Power to Pollute," which the Beacon Journal ran on Ohio's coal-burning utilities. However, the lawsuit alleges, the Murray story "did not involve any of the subjects, activities or topics addressed in the articles contained in the series, but rather consisted solely of an all-out attack on Plaintiff Murray's character, impugning him through a deliberate concoction of lies."

Though Murray and Newkirk discussed many of the issues dealt with in the newspaper's series, the lawsuit claims, the article in question "is not even related to the other articles in the series outside of the fact that Plaintiff Murray happens to be in the coal industry."

The suit also alleges specific falsehoods in the article, such as a quote from Murray saying that "I'm sick" -- a reference to his having recently undergone cervical spine surgery, which required him to wear a neck brace. Murray claims he never said these words to Newkirk, and contends that the article falsely suggests he is critically ill.

Murray is perhaps best known in Athens County because of the ongoing controversy over Dysart Woods, an old-growth forest that Ohio University owns in Belmont County, about 80 miles northeast of Athens. Fears by OU and area environmental groups that Ohio Valley may eventually try to expand a mining operation underneath the woods have triggered an ongoing and still unsettled legal battle.


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