BY MABEL PEREZ
OCALA - Is Nancy Grace a real journalist?
That could end up being the million-dollar question a federal judge must answer in determining whether Melinda Duckett's family has a right to sue the spitfire talk-show host in the wrongful death case.
Duckett, 21, was on Grace's show in September because her son, Trenton, was missing. The interview, according to Duckett's family, turned ugly when Grace "verbally assaulted" and "harassed" Melinda Duckett. The family also claims Grace's behavior made Duckett distraught enough to commit suicide, just one day after the interview.
Grace was trying to get Duckett to fill in the blanks about her missing son in a crucial timeline, but the Leesburg woman refused to talk in detail about her whereabouts in the hours leading up to Trenton's disappearance. She claimed her lawyer told her not to discuss it.
Leesburg police investigators named Melinda Duckett as their prime suspect after her suicide. Trenton, who turns 3 today, is still missing.
Lawyers for CNN and Grace want U.S. Magistrate Judge Gary R. Jones to to throw out the case because, to them, Grace is protected under the press protections of the Constitution.
"The law does not permit people to recover money from reporters who ask routine questions while covering ongoing stories of national significance to the public," wrote CNN attorney Judith Mercier.
So the question becomes, is someone like Grace, whose career has been practicing law, entitled to the same protection as other reporters just because she has a news commentary show?
"I think Nancy Grace, I think there's an aspect of entertainment to her show. But as over the top as she is at times, she is still serving a public interest," said Clint Brewer, president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists and executive editor of The City Paper in Nashville.
"I think the question of who's a journalist and who's not is less relevant nowadays than the question who's involved in active journalism. . . It matters more whether a person is acting as a journalist," Brewer said.
Al Tompkins, broadcast and online group leader for Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, said the judge's ruling on the issue could have an impact on journalists. He also said he couldn't understand why anyone would go on the show not thinking they would be grilled.
"If we're going to be civilly responsible for asking tough questions of a person who voluntarily goes on a show, then I don't know what the purpose of journalism is," Tompkins said. "Should we be submitting a list of questions beforehand to people to make sure our questions aren't offensive?"
Attorneys for Melinda Duckett's family think Grace needs to be held responsible.
Their lawsuit filed on Nov. 21 in the 5th Judicial Circuit Court in Lake County alleges that Grace inflicted emotional distress and misappropriated the likeness and images of Melinda Duckett, Trenton and the parents of Melinda Duckett. It named Grace, Cable News Network and Trenton's father, Joshua Duckett, as defendants.
The suit also accused Joshua Duckett of misusing funds meant to help investigate his son's disappearance. Melinda Duckett's estate made a donation to the T.D. Family Charitable Trust Fund and now wants the court to "ensure that all funds donated for locating [Trenton] are used for said purposes and not for any ill-conceived or improper purpose." Jones has ruled that Joshua Duckett is to be taken off the suit.
On Dec. 20, Grace lawyers had the case moved to federal court.
The attorney for Melinda Duckett's estate, Kara Skorupa, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Her adoptive parents filed the suit.
CNN attorney Judith Mercier has declined to comment on the case to the Star-Banner.
"CNN and Nancy Grace have complete protection under the law to ask tough questions and inform the public in a diligent and sincere effort to find this missing little boy," Mercier wrote in court documents. "Indeed, the media's efforts to located missing children unquestionably serves the public interest, and this lawsuit could severely chill those efforts."
Mabel Perez may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 867-4106.