by Paul Alan Levy
I have posted recently the efforts of Vision Media TV Group to use litigation to suppress critical speech on 800Notes, an online online message board devoted to comments about unwanted marketing calls. Vision Media seeks to hold Julia Forte, the operator of the message board, personally liable for messages posted by anonymous users linking to previous articles about Vision Media in such publications as the New York Times, and elaborating on those charges. When I asked Vision Media's lawyer whether he has sued the Times for its criticisms (or, was he just picking on a small operator that might not be able to afford a defense in order to cleanse its reputation), he said, "I should have." But the statute of limitations had expired by the time I talked to him.
Now he will get his chance. Yesterday, National Public Radio carried a devastating story about Vision Media's business. (The audio and a print version of the story are here; the transcript is here.) Noting claims by Vision Media that it sends its stories to public television stations, NPR reporter David Folkenflik checked with officials at PBS as well as "individual PBS stations across the country" and could not find a single instance in which a Vision-Media-produced segment had aired on a public station. Nor would Vision Media representatives say how many times its segments had been shown on a public station. But NPR found numerous instances in which Vision Media segments had been aired as paid commercials.
Hugh Downs' agent told NPR that his contract "limits his participation to public TV." When Walter Cronkite figured out how he was being played by a similar scheme, by a company that appears to have been related to Vision Media (a fact that Vision Media denies), he severed his relationship with the company. It remains to be seen whether Hugh Downs will do the same.
One of Vision Media's main complaints against Julia Forte, the proprietor, involves the removal of a post (submitted by Vision Media pretending to be a Vision Media customer) that cited Vision Media's favorable rating by the local Better Business Bureau. But since the NPR report, the BBB has pulled Vision Media's rating, which is now shown on the South Florida BBB web site only as "NR" or not rated.
NPR is reporting that Downs is reconsidering his relationship with Vision Media in light of NPR's reporting. Downs' agent told NPR that he will "likely" let his contract expire without renewal at the end of June.