Cablevision's Jim Dolan Successfully Sues Blogger Into Submission

CityFile just published a groveling retraction of an item it published in July in the face of a defamation suit from Jim Dolan, the truculent chairman of Cablevision, which owns Newsday.

CityFile has taken down the offending item as part of the settlement, but it is cached here. The story claimed that Dolan, whose company owns Radio City Music Hall, was "contemplating a final curtain call for the legendary Rockettes" and considering either doing away with the venue's annual Christmas Spectacular entirely or replacing the Rockettes with Cirque du Soleil. Cablevision vigorously denied the story at the time, calling it "fundamentally false, completely irresponsible and preposterous on its face." We picked up the CityFile item when it appeared, and included Cablevision's response.

Here's what CityFile published today:

Editor's Note: On July 24, 2009, Cityfile published an article entitled "Jim Dolan To Kill Christmas In July?" which contained speculation on the fate of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular starring the Radio City Rockettes. On July 27, 2009, Cablevision, Madison Square Garden, and Cablevision chief executive James Dolan filed a defamation lawsuit against Cityfile in New York State Supreme Court. We now realize that we could have done more to ensure that all relevant facts were included in the article. We have retracted the article and removed it from our website, and regret any negative and/or mistaken impressions that resulted from its publication. Cityfile and Madison Square Garden have since resolved all legal claims. And like all New Yorkers we're extremely pleased to hear that the legendary show will remain an institution in this city for many years to come.

The original CityFile item was written by Teri Buhl. It may be true, and it may not. Buhl, who called Cablevision subsidiary Rainbow Media for comment on the story but never heard back, stood by it after Cablevision denied it (and after CityFile updated the post with Cablevision's denial). Whatever the truth of the matter, the item was highly speculative: It reported that the Rockette's "may be" facing extinction, that Dolan was "contemplating" getting rid of the show, that he was "prepared to" do so, and that he was "explor[ing] the possibility" of doing so. It also claimed, based on a quote from a former Rockette, that advance ticket sales for this year's Christmas Spectacular had "fallen flat."

Three days after the item appeared, Dolan filed its suit against CityFile, its proprietor Remy Stern, and Buhl, which you can read here, claiming that the story "defames and disparages the Radio City Christmas Spectacular...by...falsely alleging that Plaintiffs plan to 'kill Christmas' for millions of fans by discontinuing the Christmas Spectacular."

We have to admit that we're not without bias when it comes to blogs getting sued. But Buhl's original item, even if it was inaccurate, was the sort of routine speculative business reporting that all manner of blogs and newspapers engage in every day, for better or for worse. Why, here's Newsday's web site distributing just such a story today, claiming in the face of Comcast's denial that the cable giant is exploring a purchase of some or all of NBC Universal. It strains credulity to imagine that claims that Dolan was considering a business move constituted defamation, and "impugned" Cablevision's "reputation as responsible stewards of the Rockettes," as the complaint put it. But CityFile caved and removed the reporting, presumably because the independent site couldn't afford the hassle of proving in court the obviously true fact that the item, even if it was in error, was nowhere near defamatory. Dolan has swatted a fly with a hammer, and sent a chilling warning to any other flies hovering around that he is willing to waste his company's time and money prosecuting vengeful lawsuits if they write things he doesn't like.

Dolan's loathing for reporters, propensity for feuds, and general belligerence are legendary. He engaged in a years-long feud with the Tennis Channel over carriage on Cablevision's system, and he prevented Newsday from running a Tennis Channel ad complaining about Cablevision's tactics. He declined to talk to Newsday reporters who were covering his purchase of the paper. He implemented an overbearing and controlling media policy that turned the Knicks beat into "a gulag," sending minders to eavesdrop on interviews and e-mail transcripts to their superiors and threatening to shut off access to reporters who criticized the team. A 2005 New York magazine profile described him thusly:

There are not many owners, however, who have also gotten mixed up in as many team-related spats as Jim. At practically every step, he has been feuding with somebody. The company has battled the Yankees and Mets, arguably costing Cablevision opportunities to be partners in the teams' new regional sports channels. He also dumped the Garden's signature voice, Marv Albert, opening the door for the Nets to scoop up the legendary play-by-play man. (When they move to Brooklyn, having Marv onboard will be an enormous aid in competing for New York fans.) And he is once again warring with Time Warner Cable, which has resulted in Knicks telecasts being unavailable in much of the New York market.

And now, because he has money, he has gotten a blogger he doesn't like to pull down a story he doesn't like. We called Cablevision to ask how reporting that Dolan was "considering" doing away with the Rockette's constituted defamation, and were referred to Barry Watkins, a spokesman for Madison Square Garden. He said he was barred from discussing the settlement, and referred us to a statement issued when Dolan filed the suit which said, "the lawsuit speaks for itself." As for the accuracy of the original report, we asked Watkins if he had any information on how ticket sales were going this year for the Christmas Spectacular. "Not at this time," he said. Will there be a Spectacular, with the Rockettes, next year? "I will not commit to that." In 2011? "I'm not saying yes or no. I have a statement that will answer those questions." That statement says, "The Radio City Christmas Spectacular will go on this year and every year for the foreseeable future." We asked Watkins via e-mail if next year and 2011 are in "the foreseeable future." He hasn't gotten back to us. (UPDATE: He says they are.)

CityFile's Stern declined to comment on the record.