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Bravo Realty v. Columbia Broadcasting Sys.

OPINION FILED MAY 14, 1980.

BRAVO REALTY, INC., PLAINTIFF-APPELLANT,

v.

COLUMBIA BROADCASTING SYSTEM, INC., ET AL., DEFENDANTS-APPELLEES.



APPEAL from the Circuit Court of Cook County; the Hon. LOUIS J. GILIBERTO, Judge, presiding.

MR. JUSTICE MCNAMARA DELIVERED THE OPINION OF THE COURT:

Plaintiff, Bravo Realty, Inc., instituted a libel action against defendants, Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., Bob Faw, and Walter Jacobson, for statements made in a "focus report" televised on station WBBM-TV. The trial court granted defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings, ruling that plaintiff's amended complaint failed to state a cause of action in libel as a matter of law. Plaintiff appeals.

Plaintiff is a licensed real estate brokerage firm located in the Marquette Park area of Chicago. It maintained two outdoor advertising billboards in the community. One billboard featured a cartoon drawing of a wooden outhouse and read, "The only house Bravo could never sell." The second sign depicted a naked man running, and its legend said, "When it comes to selling homes, we're streakers." Both advertisements displayed plaintiff's name and address.

On June 24, 1976, CBS televised a focus report narrated by Faw on station WBBM-TV during the 6 p.m. news program. An abbreviated version of this report was telecast during the 10 p.m. news. During the narration of both broadcasts, the video showed plaintiff's billboards, clearly identifying plaintiff's name and address. Plaintiff was not mentioned in the audio portion of either telecast.

The focus report addressed problems of housing and race relations in the changing Marquette Park community. The report consisted of news commentary and interviews with community residents. During the broadcasts, the subjects of "panic peddling" and "blockbusting" were discussed. The report detailed the panic peddling tactics of two real estate brokers explicitly named in the telecast, whose licenses were revoked or suspended. Faw stated that panic peddling was difficult to prove because the State regulatory department was understaffed and realtors "shrewdly hint or suggest rather than use language or tactics which are flagrantly illegal." Investment patterns and the practices of several lending institutions were also discussed. Faw commented that the issue confronting the Marquette Park community was not race as much as the economics of racial change.

During the 6 p.m. telecast, plaintiff's billboards were shown while the following words were spoken:

"Ads like this are not illegal — but to residents here, they are unsettling, another reminder that the area is changing. Some sympathetic realtors have stopped advertising like this — and have quit soliciting homeowners. Others refuse to stop."

In the 10 p.m. report, there was a brief discussion about deteriorating and abandoned buildings in other integrated areas, and then Faw said, "And with that, realtors moved in to prey on the fears of the homeowners left behind." At this point, the billboard with the outhouse was shown, and the narration continued, "[T]elling them: everyone else is selling — and if you don't, you'll lose everything." Later in the broadcast, Faw said, "Proving which realtors are panic peddling is nearly impossible because those who do it are usually shrewd — ." Then the billboard with the naked man was portrayed as the audio continued, "and the State Department which regulates realtors is badly understaffed."

Plaintiff's amended complaint alleged that defendants maliciously and wrongfully produced and presented a news report containing false and defamatory matter about plaintiff. Plaintiff complained that the photographic reproduction of its advertising signs, shown simultaneously with a derogatory narrative concerning the panic peddling and blockbusting tactics of realtors in the Marquette Park area, would lead viewers of the entire report to conclude that plaintiff was guilty of unscrupulous, unethical real estate practices. The amended complaint further charged that as a result of the false publication, plaintiff sustained great injury to its business and reputation. It sought damages in the amount of $1,000,000.

After filing an answer, defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings alleging that the complaint failed to state a cause of action upon which relief could be granted. Defendants contended that the alleged defamatory language was non-actionable as a matter of law under the innocent construction rule; that the offending language was protected under the privileges of neutral reporting and fair comment; that the complaint failed to set forth specifically the verbatim language complained of; and that the complaint failed to plead with requisite particularity the items of monetary loss occasioned by the broadcasts.

Plaintiff filed a response and memorandum of law in opposition. Defendants filed a memorandum of law together with a verbatim transcript of the focus report. Pursuant to plaintiff's request, the transcript was supplemented with "out-takes," or descriptions of images appearing on the screen as the commentator spoke. On June 5, 1979, having viewed the videotapes and having considered the pleadings, memoranda and arguments of counsel, the trial court, without giving reasons, ruled as a matter of law that the amended complaint failed to state a cause of action in libel against defendants. Accordingly, the court entered judgment for defendants.

We believe that the dispositive issue on appeal is whether the language complained of is susceptible of an innocent construction.

• 1, 2 To determine whether a publication is libelous, Illinois courts> apply the innocent construction rule. (See Belmonte v. Rubin (1979), 68 Ill. App.3d 700, 386 N.E.2d 904; Korbar v. Hite (1976), 43 Ill. App.3d 636, 357 N.E.2d 135, cert. denied (1977), 434 U.S. 837, 54 L.Ed.2d 98, 98 S.Ct. 127.) The rule requires that publications "be read as a whole and the words given their natural and obvious meaning, and requires that words allegedly libelous that are capable of being read innocently must be so read and declared non-actionable as a matter of law." (John v. Tribune Co. (1962), 24 Ill.2d 437, 442, 181 N.E.2d 105, cert. denied (1962), 371 U.S. 877, 9 L.Ed.2d 114, 83 S.Ct. 148.) The meaning of the statement must be gathered not only from the words singled out, but from the context. (Sloan v. Hatton (1978), 66 Ill. App.3d 41, 383 N.E.2d 259.) Moreover, the words must be read in their best possible sense. (Wexler v. Chicago Tribune Co. (1979), 69 Ill. App.3d 610, 387 N.E.2d 892.) Whether the language complained of is susceptible of innocent construction is a question of law to be resolved by reading the statement "stripped of innuendo." (Zeinfeld v. Hayes Freight Lines, Inc. (1968), 41 Ill.2d 345, 348, 243 N.E.2d 217.) The rule is applied not only to determine whether the words can be interpreted in a way which is nondefamatory, but also whether they can be construed in a way which does not relate them to the plaintiff. Belmonte v. Rubin.

• 3 Plaintiff here contends that the offending language in the telecasts cannot be innocently construed and constitutes libel per se. A publication is libelous per se if it is false and so obviously and materially hurtful to the aggrieved party that proof of its injurious character can be, and is, dispensed with. (Bruck v. Cincotta (1977), 56 Ill. App.3d 260, 371 N.E.2d 874; Bontkowski v. Chicago Sun-Times & Field Enterprises, Inc. (1969), 115 Ill. App.2d 229, 252 N.E.2d 689.) Among the categories of words which constitute libel per se are false statements which impute to the party the commission of a crime and those which prejudice a particular party in his profession. (Weber v. Woods (1975), 31 Ill. App.3d 122, 334 N.E.2d 857; Bontkowski v. Chicago Sun-Times.) Plaintiff urges that the comments accompanying the visual shots of the billboard, taken in context, accuse plaintiff of ...


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