Emerson Drops His Lawsuit

Pseudo-journalist balks after a judge asks for proof

Controversial 'journalist" Steven Emerson has abandoned his four-year-old libel suit against the Weekly Planet and former editor John Sugg.Emerson's retreat, filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court last Friday, came as he faced increasing pressure from the Planet and a circuit judge to back up some of his more outlandish claims with public evidence.

"Emerson never had a case," Planet publisher Ben Eason said Monday. "He knew he never had a case. That's why he kept referring to secret evidence. At the point when a judge demanded that Emerson reveal the identity of his associates and identify his sources, he turned tail and ran."

What made Emerson's lawsuit particularly galling, Eason said, was that it seemed designed mainly to intimidate the Planet and other independent news outlets from honest reporting — a curious campaign for a supposed journalist to wage.

"Sugg's stories were accurate when he labeled Emerson a pseudo-journalist," newspaper attorney David M. Snyder said. "No self-respecting reporter would try to deter another journalist from reporting a story. They would publish their own views and try to win in the marketplace of ideas, not in court."

Emerson promotes himself as an investigative reporter with special knowledge of radical Islamic terrorists. His critics say his work reads more like propaganda, tilted toward the interests of Israel's right wing.

In any case, his credibility has waxed and waned over the years. His 1994 film documentary Jihad in America aired on PBS and was the driving force behind the Tampa Tribune's campaign against University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, now facing federal conspiracy charges related to terrorist bombings in Israel. At the same time, Emerson's documented gaffes included his insistence that radical Muslims were behind the Oklahoma City bombing and a promise that federal officials would soon link Tampa residents to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Those mistakes, along with his insistence on anonymous sources and a penchant for threatening anyone who challenged him, caused a growing number of mainstream news agencies to view him with suspicion.

More recently, Emerson's stock has been rising in some quarters, as American's hunger for information about terrorism has grown in the aftermath of Sept. 11 and U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his lawsuit, Emerson claimed that Sugg defamed him in a 1998 Weekly Planet column. Sugg quoted a U.S. Justice Department spokesman who disputed Emerson's testimony before Congress that federal counter-terrorism officials once told Emerson of an assassination plot against him and suggested he might be eligible for a witness protection program. Sugg also quoted two Associated Press reporters who described Emerson's apparent attempt to pass off his own work as a secret FBI document. Emerson sued one of those reporters as well.

Emerson claimed the column hurt his reputation, but Sugg, the Planet and the AP reporter stood by their stories.

Emerson and his lawyers maneuvered to prolong the case even as they dodged the newspaper's attempts to force Emerson to provide evidence to back his claim.

Finally, in February, Circuit Judge James D. Arnold ordered Emerson to comply with the newspaper's demands for more information. That order was on appeal, but this week another hearing was scheduled that could have forced Emerson to divulge information about his personal and professional life. The hearing also could have resulted in Emerson being declared a public figure, limiting his ability to use libel suits to intimidate reporters, Snyder said.

Neither Emerson nor his lawyers would return phone calls for comment, but on the eve of Monday's hearing, they voluntarily withdrew the suit. Snyder said the complaint is now too old to be revived. The AP reporter was previously dismissed from the suit, although that decision remains on appeal.

Sugg, now a senior editor for the Planet's sister paper in Atlanta, Creative Loafing, said he still has doubts about Emerson despite the obvious threats of domestic terrorism. "There are excellent sources on terrorism," Sugg said, listing law enforcement and a number of respectable journalists. "But you have to wonder about a guy who pursues a lawsuit for four years and when he finally has to put up a little proof of his charges — he runs away. I would wonder if that proof ever existed."

Because of the harassing nature of the suit, Eason said he's asking the court to make Emerson pay the defendants' legal costs. Snyder estimated his recoverable costs in the Tampa case "in the neighborhood of $200,000.'' But the paper and its insurance company have spent more than twice that fighting Emerson in various legal venues.

Not all newspapers would have been willing or able to defend themselves against attacks such as Emerson's, but that was why the Planet had to, Eason said.

"Emerson and his true believers spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to silence us. We spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in defense of a newspaper's right to publish the truth."

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