This is the last part of the interview with Judge Buell Nesbett on July 26, 1982 by Dr. Claus Naske in Solana Beach, California. This is a continuation from tape numbers Oral History 82-68-04 and 82-68-05. In this final part of the interview, Buell Nesbett talks about Ernest Gruening’s libel lawsuit against the Juneau Empire newspaper, and mentions Drew Pearson and Bob Atwood.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Judges of Alaska
Date of Interview: Jul 26, 1982
Narrator(s): Justice Buell Nesbett
Interviewer(s): Claus Naske
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Ernest Gruening sued the Juneau Empire for libel
Drew Pearson story
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BUELL NESBETT: Yes, Gruening -- Gruening and the territorial treasurer and the territorial road commissioner. CLAUS NASKE: Oh, yes. BUELL NESBETT: Sued the Juneau Empire for libel claiming that the Juneau Empire had implied certain illegal acts in the manner in which they'd handled certain state funds.
So Gruening was outraged. He'd always had a bad time from the Juneau media and he wanted to sue them for libel and he couldn’t get an attorney that he wanted -- that he trusted in Juneau to handle it.
So he came to Anchorage and he asked Wendell Kay and I if we would handle it. We say yes. And so as a result, I have to admit it all as a matter of fact but we sued them.
CLAUS NASKE: Helen Monson. BUELL NESBETT: Helen Monson, yeah, down in Juneau, that's right. And it broke -- it broke them. They had -- they only had a certain amount of insurance and I think they had to pay the first twenty thousand.
But anyway I moved for change of venue and got -- and Hodge granted it and I got the case to be tried in Ketchikan. So we went down and tried the case and won it.
And so those days and times the judgment was pretty good. It was over twenty thousand plus some attorneys’ fees and maybe some interest, I don’t know.
Ever since -- ever after that Gruening used to tell everybody that Nesbett is the best lawyer in Alaska.
And I know when Drew Pearson came to Alaska once. He went up to watch some troop manuevers in the arctic and he sent a -- he came to Anchorage to send his dispatch back.
But he went into that radio station that's above the theater there, I forget the call letters, but it belonged to the same newsgroup that he did and he had a right to come in there and file his dispatches and not have them stolen.
What happened was the manager of the station gave -- at the start of the report of what Drew Pearson had phoned in to Washington and what ever it was and gave it to the Anchorage Times. And the Anchorage Times printed it.
Drew Pearson came back to Alaska as (inaudible). He went to Gruening and he said, who should I get and he said go to Nesbett.
So I looked the whole thing over and I said, yeah, after everything you told me we should get started and I called Bob Atwood, publisher of Anchorage paper. No way and Drew Pearson -- do you remember him?
CLAUS NASKE: Drew? BUELL NESBETT: Yeah, he did -- CLAUS NASKE: He was a big Gruening fan, as a matter of fact?
BUELL NESBETT: Yeah, well that's how he went to Gruening, see and then he came to me, so, he didn’t want to sue necessarily, but he wanted a retraction --
an apology and they hadn't really messed him up, pretty bad. Bob would have no part of it. So he says I tell you what I’ll do he says you don’t need to take my word for it he said we'll get a jury of our peers.
And we'll meet in that broadcast studio and we'll see if I quoted him out of context and then distorted it. So we did and one of the jurors was Norm Brown, who was editor of the morning newspaper then.
CLAUS NASKE: Anchorage Daily News, that's right. BUELL NESBETT: Right. And Norm Brown was no particular friend of mine. We were just acquaintances and that was all, but there were others.
So we each presented our side of the case and listened to -- read the report and read Drew Pearson’s report and took a vote and I won. Norm Brown even voted for me. So --
CLAUS NASKE: So it wasn’t a formal trial, was it? BUELL NESBETT: No. Drew didn’t want to sue them, but he wanted an apology and a retraction on it's own.
So we walked out -- Bob and I were walking down the street and I said, Bob, well do you agree that you quoted him out of context? And he said I don’t agree to any such thing. He says what is context anyway?
He says, where did we ever get an obligation to quote anybody in context? I said, well, maybe it is an unwritten law of journalism that you don’t quote out of context to the point of distortion or create an innuendo or anything like that.
I don’t believe it and I said well I want to get a retraction on it. He says no way. So what I did was write up an article to be printed as an advertisement.
And I stated the facts of what had happened in a way that didn’t, you know, make a fool out of Bob at all. And it raised the question what is out of context? That's what Bob had claimed hadn’t happened.
So I took the covenant from the Gettysburg Address, about four or five paragraphs of it. And just split it up with commas and -- to show how you can get something out of context by handling it incorrectly.
And it was most convincing really -- I was impressed myself. I didn’t know that could be done, you know, when I started out trying to do it.
So I had this big ad and I take it over to the newspaper and the advertising manager took it up to Bob and they said no we won't print it. So I took it right over to Norm Brown for the morning paper and he was happy to print it.
So then later Bob says all right I’ll print it. But what he did was print part of it in large letters and the rest was suck small letters that you could never read it.
CLAUS NASKE: Did he ever print a retraction? BUELL NESBETT: No. Bob -- Bob's not that way, either. If he thinks he's right, he's not going to give in, but that was the end of that, except that I sent a copy to Pearson and he was most pleased, you know, to have at least that much.