An Illinois appeals court has ruled against Amy Jacobson, who sued CBS-owned WBBM-Channel 2 for airing video of her at a backyard swimming pool that ended her career as a Chicago television news reporter seven years ago.
As a reporter for NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5 in July 2007, Jacobson was covering the disappearance of Lisa Stebic, a suburban wife and mother. A camera from CBS 2 captured Jacobson wearing a bikini in the presence of the missing woman’s husband, Craig Stebic, who was identified as a person of interest in the case. Jacobson was there on her day off with her two children.
Soon after CBS 2 aired the videotape, NBC 5 fired Jacobson, then a 10-year veteran of the station. Jacobson sued CBS for defamation, invasion of privacy and other claims.
As first reported by Courthouse News Service, an Illinois appeals court rejected Jacobson’s claims, ruling that she was a public figure and that CBS did not act with malice by airing the video.
Writing for the three-judge panel, Justice Thomas Hoffman said: "There can be no dispute that the plaintiff inserted herself into a prominent position in the controversy. Already a well-known local personality and high-profile reporter, the plaintiff worked steadfastly to become the 'owner' of the Stebic story, admittedly throwing herself into the case, frequenting the site of the Stebic home with a camera crew, participating in public vigils and searches with a camera crew, or, at times on her days off, urging the public to come forward with any clues shedding light on Lisa's disappearance.
“She also solicited and achieved close professional relationships with the families of both Lisa and Craig, gaining unique access to the story as one of these families’ ‘favorite journalists.’ She admittedly worked ‘tirelessly’ in the ongoing efforts to find Lisa. She was highly respected by the local law enforcement authorities and testified that she communicated with the police regarding the case and ultimately broke most of the major stories in the case of Lisa’s disappearance. The plaintiff also testified that, although Craig Stebic had declined to speak with the police by the second week after the disappearance, he did discuss the case with her.
“It was the plaintiff’s existing notoriety, combined with her access to the Stebic family and her tenacious aspiration to ‘get to the bottom’ of the case, that thrust her even further into the public spotlight, invited scrutiny of her methods, and gave rise to the ethical predicament in which she found herself on July 7. . . . Further, it cannot be disputed that her conduct in going to the Stebics’ that day was germane to the controversy. As became clear soon after the reports surfaced in the Chicago Tribune and the Sun Times, the plaintiff’s coverage of the Stebic case created widespread public outcry and debate as to her journalistic ethics and judgment. Evidence in the record in the form of public correspondence to NBC, as well as media commentary, demonstrates that her actions affected the way the public perceived her reporting on the Stebic story, as well as generally.
“Finally, as a public figure, she could and did avail herself of effective communication channels to explain her side of the story, choosing from an onslaught of media outlets which were pursuing her, and finding the ones that would best help her to clear her name.”
The justices disagreed that CBS 2’s video implied that Jacobson was having an affair with Craig Stebic: “There is nothing shown in the videotape that is especially private. The plaintiff is shot from a distance, has a towel around her waist, and is seen primarily walking around talking on her cell phone. Her children are briefly shown, but their images similarly aren’t entirely clear. Accordingly, we find no error in the dismissal of this issue on summary judgment,” Hoffman wrote in the 14-page opinion.
Jacobson now works as morning co-host with John Howell on Salem Communications news/talk WIND AM 560.
Tuesday afternoon update: Jacobson’s attorney, Kathleen Zellner, said Jacobson is appealing her case against CBS to the Illinois Supreme Court, according to the Sun-Times.