Mea Culpa, Culpa, Culpa

A Hmong woman sues an apologetic Pioneer Press for libel

The Pioneer Press is sorry.

Very, very sorry.

On September 19, the newspaper published a piece headlined "Judge commits woman," about a St. Paul resident named Mee Xiong, who had been arrested in July for fatally stabbing two of her children. According to the story, Ramsey County District Judge Michael DeCourcy ordered Xiong to undergo a 60-day psychiatric examination, thus postponing any criminal trial.

There was nothing factually wrong in reporter Todd Nelson's front-page, metro section report. And the woman in the photo that accompanied the text was indeed named Mee Xiong. Unfortunately for the Pioneer Press, it was the wrong Mee Xiong. The woman accused of the crimes was a resident of the McDonough Homes complex on St. Paul's North End, had been hospitalized for mental illness on three prior occasions, and was married to Vang Yang. By contrast, the Mee Xiong in the photo was a Minneapolis resident, president of Lucky Temporary Services, Inc., the wife of Charlie Nhia-Gao-Vang, and had never been charged with a crime.

The day after the story ran, the PiPress ran a two-sentence blurb on the second page of the newspaper along with the correct photo. Then, after Xiong's attorney made it clear a standard correction would not do, the newspaper agreed to run a more prominent retraction. On October 31, above the fold on the front page of the local news section, the Pioneer Press ran a picture of both women and yet another correction.

"This Mee Xiong did not kill anyone and has never been charged with any crime. This is not the Mee Xiong charged with killing two of her children," the four-paragraph statement of contrition concluded unambiguously. "The Pioneer Press apologizes to this Mee Xiong for this mistake."

"We are truly sorry," editor Vicki Gowler maintains to this day.

But no matter how many times the Pioneer Press falls on its editorial sword, Mee Xiong seems set on suing the paper for libel. In fact, Mee Xiong's attorneys plan on filing a lawsuit in Ramsey County District Court this week, charging that the paper's mistake, no matter how innocent, has damaged her reputation and hurt her business. "I think we have irreparable harm here," says Sia Lo, one of two attorneys representing Xiong. "You can't really repair something like this."

As it turns out, the October correction was an attempt to comply with a 100-year-old state law, which states that if a paper runs a particular type of retraction, the parties who have been libeled can only sue for "special damages"--which are defined as direct expenses like lost wages or medical bills. Less tangible claims, such as emotional distress or a damaged reputation, are not actionable. Gowler cannot recall another time when the paper attempted to comply with the statute.

But Xiong's attorneys are arguing that the paper muffed the mea culpa. The statute says that a retraction must be "published on the same page and in the same type" as the libelous statement. While the Pioneer Press's statement of contrition ran in the same location as the initial story, the headline accompanying it was considerably smaller. "I think they intended to comply with the statute, and they may argue that they have complied, but the statute clearly says on the same page and in the same type," argues attorney Pat Tierney, who is also representing Xiong. "I would consider that to mean in the same size type."

"It says the same type," retorts Gowler. "We used the same type." In other words, the font size may have been different, but the style was the same. What's more, Gowler claims, Tierney initially expressed satisfaction with both the placement and layout of the statement.

If and when the technicalities are dispensed with, Tierney plans to claim that his client's suffering has been exacerbated because of her Hmong heritage. "It's what makes this case different from many defamation cases," Tierney argues. "It's a very close-knit Hmong community. And this community happens to believe anything they read in the newspaper. People who knew her nevertheless believed what they read in the newspaper."

Gowler believes Tierney's argument is self-defeating. "If they believed us then, they should believe us when we say we made a mistake and here's the truth," she counters.

Ilean Her, executive director of the Minnesota Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, says that "the community really doesn't even read the Pioneer Press." "It's not a literary community," she adds. "It's not a community based on reading."

Lee Pao Xiong, executive director of the Urban Coalition, takes a slightly different tack. "We do have members in our community that read the paper, and these are usually some of the movers and shakers in our community," he says. "Media in general kind of legitimizes everything in our community."

This is not the first time in local journalism lore that a photographic snafu has led to a legal battle. On election day in 1996, the Star Tribune mistakenly ran a photo of mayoral hopeful John Derus next to a story about charity fraud. Derus sued the paper, charging that the error cost him the primary election, but eventually dropped the case.

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