There are two ways to define "yellow journalist." You could define it traditionally, to to refer to a journalist who exploits, exaggerates, or distorts the news in service of sensationalism. Or you could interpret "yellow" to mean contemptibly craven.
Based on her conduct, Lori Kilchermann — an editor at the Ionia, Michigan Sentinal-Standard — is at least one of those.
Kilchermann is suing some citizens who said she met the first definition.
The dispute arises from a story in the Ionia Sentinel-Standard entitled "Four Arrested In Farmhouse Meth Bust." Kilchermann was the editor at the time. The Sentinel-Standard had an angle on the meth bust: it happened at a farmhouse that had hosted a Republican fundraiser. The paper's staff also chose a photo of the Republican fundraiser:
The photo — taken two years earlier at an Ionia Republican Party event, which was attended by then-candidates Rick Snyder and Brian Calley — showed a woman, Kristy Cuttle, who was arrested and later pleaded guilty in the meth case.
It also showed four people not connected to the bust — Cuttle’s husband, who had died since the photo was taken, two retired teachers and a woman who helped organize the campaign event.
Several citizens objected, met with Kilchermann, and wrote letters and Facebook posts and emails characterizing her conduct as "yellow journalism." Whether it was or not is a matter of opinion, particularly given the flexibility of the term.
But Kilchermann, a journalist who relies professionally on robust free speech, the protections of the First Amendment, and the right of all Americans to express their opinion, responded bravely with the remedy of more speech.
No she didn't.
Kilchermann, represented by Carrie Gallagher of Duff Chadwick & Associates, sued, claiming defamation, Butthurt in the First Degree1, and tortious interference with business relationships. Her complaint, which I have uploaded here, is explicitly premised on the notion that it is defamatory to say Kilchermann is a "yellow journalist" or that that she "editorializes the news," and that by — among other things — encouraging people to stop subscribing to the Sentinel, the defendants have wrongly interfered with her "business expectancies."
The problem is, of course, that statements of opinion are absolutely protected by the First Amendment when, as here, they are premised on known and disclosed facts. "Yellow journalism" is a classic example of rhetorical flair that is self-evidently opinion because its application is based on issues of fairness and bias on which different observers will differ. "Editorializes the news" is another classic example; show a political news story to partisans of two parties and you'll get two opinions on whether it editorializes.
Did the Sentinel — and its editor Kilchermann — engage in editorializing and yellow journalism by emphasizing a meth bust's ties to partisan politics? That's a matter of taste. The complaint says that the paper "believed" that the connection was newsworthy — a word that merely underlines that it's a matter of opinion. I find the incident banal rather than shocking. But complaining about it — and calling for the paper and its editors and writers to experience social consequences — is core speech protected by the First Amendment.
Whether or not Kilchermann is a "yellow journalist" in the sense of bias, her lawsuit marks her as a "yellow journalist" in the sense of despicable moral cowardice and betrayal of American values. Rather than speak out to refute criticisms of her work — rather than use the remedy of more speech, and respect the protections that makes her profession possible — Kilchermann has chosen to demand that the court system punish people who state their opinions of her in a way that hurts her feelings.
I sought a comment from Ms. Kilchermann's attorney, and did not get a response. Within a few hours of my tweet to Kilchermann's Twitter handle @LoriKilchermann, she shut down the account. Yellow indeed.
How can you possibly trust, or respect, a journalist who thinks that she has a right to be protected from negative opinions of her journalism? How can you possibly respect, or trust, the newspaper that continues to enjoy the protections of the First Amendment even as its editor seeks to deny those protections to others?
- She called it, as people tend to, intentional infliction of emotional distress. ▲