Lazier v. Pulitzer Publishing Co.

Decision Date10 May 1971
Docket NumberNo. 54853,No. 1,54853,1
Citation467 S.W.2d 900
PartiesMerna MacBride LAZIER, Appellant, v. PULITZER PUBLISHING COMPANY, Respondent
CourtMissouri Supreme Court

Lucas & Murphy, Wilder Lucas, St. Louis, for appellant.

Evans & Hoemeke, Robert D. Evans, Michael P. Casey, St. Louis, for respondent.

SEILER, Presiding Judge.

Appeal from a jury verdict and judgment in favor of defendant in a libel action in which plaintiff sought $100,000 actual and $250,000 punitive damages based on two letters written by defendant's editors. Under the pleadings, defendant did not assert truth as an affirmative defense, but instead alleged qualified privilege, that the letters were written in good faith and in the belief that the matters therein stated were true. We reverse and remand.

Plaintiff, first as a free-lance writer and then as an employee, works for defendant corporation in preparing an illustrated article known as 'My Favorite Dish', which appears in color in defendant's newspaper, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, in the Sunday Pictures supplement. The article features various persons' favorite dishes and shows the featured person preparing the dish. Several photographs, with explanatory notes, illustrate the dish in various stages of preparation, culminating in a photograph of the finished product, accompanied by an article describing the dish, with background information on its origin, a few facts about the person, and setting forth the recipe.

For approximately 12 years the feature appeared under plaintiff's by-line; in February 1965, defendant, without notice to plaintiff and without her consent, removed plaintiff's by-line as a first step in eliminating the feature itself. The management decision to eliminate 'My Favorite Dish' resulted from advances in printing technology whereby use of color in the daily became economically feasible and a desire 'not to have too much food in the Sunday paper', but instead to run a food feature in color in the daily paper, to be written by the food editor, a Dorothy Brainard; the management wanted to get the readers used to seeing her articles and 'to eliminate any stories which might detract from her expertise in the eyes of our readership'. Upon the dropping of 'My Favorite Dish', plaintiff would be dismissed.

Several inquiries were received by defendant concerning the author of the feature after plaintiff's by-line had been dropped. Mrs. Bessie C. Nordman wrote the following letter:

St. Louis, Missouri

5 February 1965

The Editor of the St. Louis

post dispatch

1133 Franklin Ave.

St. Louis, Missouri.

Dear Sir:

Several years ago I was featured in your Sunday Magazine Section, making my 'Favorite Dish'. It was done by Merna Lazier. The Meticulous care she took doing the supervising of the photographing and the arrangement impressed me very much, and I knew that any recipe coming from her would be just perfect. After that I bought the Sunday Post just to get her recipes. I have always been vitally interested in cooking and have saved them all.

For the past weeks I do not see her name on the article and I was wondering if she is still doing them, and if not could I trust the party who might be. This is the only reason I purchase the Sunday Post and if Merna Lazier is not doing them, I might as well not take the Sunday paper.

Will you be so kind as to inform me just who is doing the articles. A stamped self addressed envelope is inclosed for your convenience,

Respectfully,

/s/ Bessie C. Nordman

Bessie C. Nordman

1516 Engelholm Ave.

St. Louis 33, Mo.

Inc'l.

1 Envelope

Defendant's managing editor replied to the above letter as follows:

February 22, 1965

Mrs. Bessie C. Nordman

1516 Engelholm Ave.

St. Louis 33, Missouri

Dear Mrs. Nordman:

The person who has written 'My Favorite Dish' for many years is still writing it. Your friend, Mrs. Lazier, never was the author. All she did, and still does, was to arrange the picture-taking and check the recipes.

Sincerely,

/s/ Arthur R. Bertelson

Managing Editor

Mr. Bertelson testified one of his duties was to see that readers who had inquiries were satisfied, and to do so, and as a matter of courtesy, since a stamped addressed envelope was enclosed, he answered Mrs. Nordman's letter. He wanted to keep Mrs. Nodman taking the paper, and, as stated, had in mind getting the readers used to seeing the food articles published under the name of Mrs. Brainard and to bolster Mrs. Brainard's name.

He did not, before writing the letter, call Mrs. Lazier or otherwise check to set what she had done in the past about writing the articles personally. He acted on his knowledge, 29 years with the paper, based on experience as managing editor and then executive editor, that what Mrs. Lazier did was to be responsible for getting the recipes together, arranging for the photography and 'transmitting these procedures' to the Picture staff for the feature; that she would prepare a preliminary draft of the way it should appear, but the article was actually written by one assistant to the editor or another, and that despite the by-line, Mrs. Lazier was not the author; that the practice in the newspaper business is to give a by-line to a person 'who contributes elements to a story', whether or not he writes it.

As opposed to this, plaintiff's evidence was that in the preparation of the feature she would arrange an appointment with the person who was to be featured in 'My Favorite Dish' and for the photographer to be at the person's home at the appointed time. Plaintiff arranged the settings for the photographs, supervised the taking of the photographs, and took notes on the detailed preparation of the dish and the recipe. Later, at her home, she wrote 'underliners' (a short paragraph under a photograph which explains the photograph) and a paragraph or two describing the dish and its preparation and giving some information about the person involved. She then sent this draft to defendant's Pictures editor. The paper would then make a proof sheet. This was returned to her and she made any necessary corrections. Sometimes the newspaper would edit her work slightly or cut it down sufficiently to permit a larger advertisement on the page, but for the most part, she said, the paper made no changes in her copy. In fact, plaintiff produced several carbon copies she had retained of the material she sent to the paper where the proposed article was published verbatim or with little change, at most.

Plaintiff also testified that it required someone with some expert knowledge of recipes and cooking to write the articles and it could not be done by an editor's assistant who had no such knowledge; that it sometimes took her hours to compose an article.

Our examination of the exhibits, examples of 'My Favorite Dish', from the pages of the Sunday Pictures section, convinces us a jury could find that not just anyone could have prepared and written these articles. They refer to such things, as braising, basting, crimping, folding, leavening, glazing, congealing, breading, parboiling, sauteing, casings, shells, stock, meringue, oven temperatures, souffle, garnish, mixing procedures and other cooking terms and activities. No doubt an assistant to the editor would be able to take the material sent in by Mrs. Lazier and edit it by eliminating redundancies, restructuring a phrase here and there, repunctuating and correcting grammatical errors, if any, which is comparable to an assistant to the editor making similar changes in material sent in by the newspaper's expert on contract bridge, on how to bid and play a particular hand. The fact that the assistant does such editing does not mean he is the author or is qualfied to write the article in the first place, however.

Defendant received the following letter from Mrs. Helen H. Henderson:

1535 Grant Road

Webster Groves, Missouri

22 February, 1965

Mr. William Brandsted

Editor, Sunday Pictures

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

St. Louis, Missouri

Dear Mr. Brandsted:

For the past eight and a half years I have been a diligent reader of the Sunday Pictures supplement to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It has provided a giant amount of clippings for my folders marked 'St. Louis' both at home and at the library where I worked

One of my required reading for the week has been Merna Lazar's 'Favorite Dish', therefore, it has greatly disturbed me that her feature no longer carries her byline. Mrs. Lazar is one of St. Louis' authorities on Gourmet Cooking. Her ability is recognized by professional chefs as well as amateur cooks, witness the overwhelming popularity of her cooking classes.

I feel very strongly that although the photography is generally excellent it is Mrs. Lazar's name that gives authority to the feature.

Sincerely,

/s/ Helen H. Henderson

(Mrs. Beecher R. Henderson)

Defendant's editor of Sunday Pictures responded in a letter as follows:

February 24, 1965

Mrs. Beecher R. Henderson

1535 Grant Road

Webster Groves 19, Mo.

Dear Mrs. Henderson:

A number of Mrs. Lazier's friends have written to us, protesting against the dropping of her byline from the Favorite Dish feature. We welcome their interest but continue to regard this as an internal matter of office policy.

By way of reassurance, may I add that omission of Mrs. Lazier's name has no bearing on the authenticity of the articles. As in the past, subjects are suggested by a number of persons and the writing...

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2 cases
  • Snodgrass v. Headco Industries, Inc., WD
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • August 17, 1982
    ...this case leave some question as to whether the qualified privilege was applicable, but as the court stated in Lazier v. Pulitzer Publishing Co., 467 S.W.2d 900, 904 (Mo.1971): "The parties tried this case on the theory, and seem in complete agreement on appeal, that the [defendant] had a q......
  • Bauer v. Adams, KCD
    • United States
    • Missouri Court of Appeals
    • April 4, 1977
    ...all reasonable inferences therefrom and disregarding evidence of defendant which is unfavorable to plaintiffs. Lazier v. Pulitzer Publishing Company, 467 S.W.2d 900 (Mo.1971), cert. denied 404 U.S. 940, 92 S.Ct. 273, 30 L.Ed.2d 253 (1971); Palermo v. Cottom, 525 S.W.2d 758 (Mo.App.1975); Ye......

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