A newspaper suing a reporter to shut him up? It sounds crazy, but that is the contradiction at the heart of the effort by Philadelphia’s newspaper of record in their three-year legal battle with veteran Philadelphia journalist Stu Bykofsky. That case is now playing out in the Court of Common Pleas between Bykofsky and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Recent court records reveal that the Inquirer appears to be investing significant resources to escalate the long-running legal fight.
The series of lawsuits stem from the events of July 12, 2019, which was Bykofsky’s last day of work at the Daily News and Inquirer, after he took a “buy-out”, a common corporate cost-savings measure which offers a severance package to senior journalists to hire more junior talent at lower wages Buying out Bykofsky concluded his 47-year tenure.
Inquirer editor David Lee Preston, who often called Bykofsky “the dean of Philadelphia columnists”, organized a going away party in the newsroom at the paper’s center city headquarters that day. The event was emceed by columnist Jenice Armstrong and sixteen colleagues spoke of Bykofsky’s career, which spanned the Vietnam war era through the administrations of Philadelphia mayors from Frank Rizzo to Jim Kenney. For fifteen of the sixteen who spoke at the event followed the traditional script afforded to an office retirement gathering – highlighting the work and impact of the outgoing colleague.
That changed when Armstrong called up the Inquirer’s architecture columnist, Inga Saffron, to speak.
Saffron used the retirement function to launch into what Philadelphia magazine described as a savage critique of his journalistic ethics, during which Bykofsky was observed visibly uncomfortable and attempting to defend himself. Saffron then noted Bykofsky’s friendship with Ted Beitchman, who was convicted of tax evasion and reportedly procured topless dancers for a party while employed in the Ed Rendell administration.
As this was being video recorded, an editor was then seen walking to Armstrong and whispering something in her ear – but not before Saffron recalled a 2011 article of Bykofsky’s that covered his journey to Thailand. This, as a 2019 lawsuit filed by Bykofsky, was when Saffron crossed the line, as she was video recorded referring to Bykofsky’s “taste for child prostitutes in Thailand.” The video of Saffron’s diatribe was then published by Philadelphia magazine without Bykofsky’s permission.
In her own recorded remarks, Saffron admitted she was motivated by a “grudge”, but stories soon appeared in the Washington Post, the Daily Mail, and other outlets, spreading Saffron’s statement about “his taste for child prostitutes” that she claimed appeared in a column he wrote about a visit to Thailand a decade earlier. With the lies now marring Bykofsky’s half-century legacy in Philadelphia journalism, he sued the Inquirer and Saffron for defamation.
Three years later, the Inquirer filed a countersuit against Bykofsky for breaching a non-disclosure agreement that prohibited Bykofsky from “disparaging” the Inquirer or its staff. In a review of the claim, the alleged “disparagement” were the words used by Bykofsky at the time of his defamation claim to refute the lies that had been told about him. In the lawsuit, which the head of Bykofsky’s union says is unprecedented, the Inquirer is seeking to recoup from Bykofsky “gross pay in the amount of $58,738.56,” plus “payment of his COBRA medical expenses for a period of eight months.”
“Suing a former 40 year employee over his exercising his First Amendment right by defending himself is pretty ironic don’t you think?” said Bill Ross, the executive director of the News Guild of Greater Philadelphia. Ross, who termed the newspaper’s lawsuit “a pretty desperate measure,” said that “in all the buyouts the Inquirer has had over the past 20 years, they have never sued a former Guild member for violating the terms of the buyout.”
While the amount and span of the claim is novel, this is not the first time the Inquirer has defamed one of its veteran journalists.
In 1998, Ralph Cipriano, who now runs BigTrial.net, sued the Inquirer, which was then his employer, along with parent company Knight-Ridder Inc. and his editor, Robert J. Rosenthal, for false and defamatory statements, innuendo, and malicious libel. The suit, which was settled in 2001, stems from Cipriano’s investigative coverage which broke scandals involving the finances of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.
In July, Cipriano covered the Inquirer’s seemingly retaliatory lawsuit against Bykofsky, noting the similarities with his own legal battle with Philadelphia’s largest newspaper in a comment to Broad + Liberty.
“As in my case, when the former editor of the Inquirer publicly trashed my reputation in The Washington Post, it would have been much smarter to start issuing apologies from the jump, starting with the Post, the common denominator in both cases.” said Cipriano “But like the Popes of old, however, the Inky brain trust must continue to think they’re infallible.”
Bykofsky declined to comment due to the ongoing litigation, but referred us to his attorney Mark Schwartz, who said “The Inquirer’s claim against Bykofsky is like a textbook on how to metastasize a situation.”
In essence, the Inquirer’s claim presents a catch-22, insisting that any defense Bykofsky made to Saffron’s diatribe would be disparagement because it puts the Inquirer in a “bad light,” while ignoring the fact that the “bad light” in question was created by the actions of Saffron, an Inquirer staffer, in the Inquirer newsroom, during working hours. She was not cut off, nor admonished, by Inquirer editors who were present at the time of her disrespectful rant.
Considering that the costs of the lawsuit may outweigh the sum that the city’s largest newspaper is seeking to obtain from their pensioner; it is hard to argue that the Inquirer isn’t trying to intimidate Bykofsky into dropping his pending 2019 defamation lawsuit against the Inquirer.
Regardless of the Inquirer’s motivations, the timing of their suit raises questions as to whether their claim is retaliatory. There is a certain hypocrisy in the air when a newspaper that almost constantly signals their progressive values to be suing a senior citizen and former reporter of theirs in an apparent attempt to get him to withdraw his lawsuit — a suit that he filed to clear his name against accusations made by their own employee.
By forcing Bykofsky to pay costly legal expenses to defend himself, the Inquirer’s latest scandal is another sad indictment that Philadelphia’s largest newspaper, which exists on a foundation of free expression, doesn’t hesitate to deny free expression for those whom it opposes.
A. Benjamin Mannes, MA, CPP, CESP, is a Subject Matter Expert in Security & Criminal Justice Reform based on his own experiences on both sides of the criminal justice system. He has served as a federal and municipal law enforcement officer and was the former Director, Office of Investigations with the American Board of Internal Medicine. @PublicSafetySME