KSTP's million-dollar mistake

Station loses biggest defamation case in Minnesota history

"Cheryl," her attorney cut in. "Can I stop you here?"

"No," Blaha answered, elaborating that she "never cared about winning." She said she sued Anderson to hold her accountable.

"She is one of those people in history that are wonderful speakers," Blaha declared of Anderson, stunning the audience by citing Martin Luther King and Adolf Hitler. King used his powers for good, Cheryl said, so "we have a holiday for him." Hitler, by contrast, "told an entire country to kill all the Jews, and they did because he was a wonderful speaker."

KSTP reporter Jennifer Griswold (above) accused Susan Anderson (bottom) of causing Cheryl Blaha to attempt suicide
courtesy of the Dakota County court
KSTP reporter Jennifer Griswold (above) accused Susan Anderson (bottom) of causing Cheryl Blaha to attempt suicide
Susan Anderson turned to defamation attorney Pat Tierney for help with KSTP
Mark N. Kartarik
Susan Anderson turned to defamation attorney Pat Tierney for help with KSTP

Tierney adjourned the deposition after Blaha called Anderson a "quack," but saw it as further proof that Blaha was not only mentally ill but also incapable of taking responsibility for her own actions.

How could she blame Judge Lundell for costing her that trial? Tierney asks. "She was the one who waived the jury. I think she needed someone to blame."

Susan Anderson v. Hubbard Communications went to trial last Halloween. Anderson was stunned when Cheryl Blaha walked into the courtroom.

"What kind of harm did they do to that woman by broadcasting her delusion?" Anderson wondered. "From this vibrant woman that I left to the woman who showed up in the courtroom probably 30 pounds lighter, looked 30 years older."

Blaha's appearance forced Tierney to revise his court strategy to avoid the appearance of beating up on a sick woman.

"I'd planned to have her on the stand for a few hours but questioned her for 10 to 15 minutes because she looked so terrible," Tierney recalls.

On the stand, KSTP's reporters tried to argue that their story was accurate. But Jennifer Griswold didn't do herself any favors, Tierney recalls.

"She kind of volunteered the statement that she stood behind everything they did even today," Tierney recalls. "To come in and try to defend that, to say the records matched the story, they did themselves more harm than good."

Calling the case "as extreme as I've seen on defamation," Tierney links KSTP's report to a broader problem with television news.

"Every time you watch an investigative report nowadays they try to get the same video clip of the person running away from the camera, ducking, not wanting to be interviewed," Tierney says. "It all makes for great TV, but are those reporters trying to get to the truth, trying to find out what really happened? I don't think that's how you do it."

Although the station's reporters wouldn't discuss the story, KSTP's lawyer says the organization stands by its reporting.

"They did a fine job," says attorney Paul Hannah. "There's nothing wrong with the job that they did."

Hannah points out that nobody knows what truly happened between the Blahas and Anderson.

"If you decide in a he-said/she-said that one is telling the truth and the other is not, you come up with a different characterization of what happened," Hannah says. "They talked to people, talked to experts, talked to the participants, and came out with the best story they could."

Hannah declines to discuss "individual elements of the investigation."

The jury wasn't impressed. It came back with a verdict against KSTP for $1 million.

One incredulous juror noted that KSTP ran its promos before it ever sat down with Anderson.

"They had Susan Anderson already convicted of wrongdoing before they ever met her," says Frank Lucchesi, an engineer who does contracting with the federal government.

The jury decided that KSTP failed to do its job by not getting Blaha's full medical records, and compounded the mistake by not seeking corroboration.

"They did very little to try and verify the claims of that individual, and some of the things they did do, like pulling doctors' records, did not really substantiate her story," says William Sommers, the jury foreman. "And then when it started coming out and the holistic healer tried to say, 'Hold it, that's not correct, you need to take a look at this,' they chose not to."

It was more reminiscent of a "National Enquirer story than a real investigative report," Lucchesi says. "They took the investigation out of investigative reporting."

Susan Anderson walks through her office, past shelves lined with dozens of bottles containing natural health supplements. She proudly shows off her ranch, where horses roam and African guinea hens squawk.

"Better than guard dogs," Anderson says.

Back in her office, Anderson reflects on the entire experience, which she considers a tremendous ordeal.

"These two and a half years changed my life forever," Anderson says. "I didn't know what effect it was having on my partner, my girls."

In 2010, Anderson closed the Healing Arts Wellcare Center for a year due to depression she says was brought on by KSTP's story. Her daughter Jessica Syfko, a trainer at the University of Minnesota and a naturopath herself, testified that the piece was "devastating" for her mother.

"She had to defend herself for something that she didn't do," Syfko said. "She isolated herself on her home and her property with her animals."

Anderson says she's "slowly recovering" from the trial. KSTP initially declared its intention to appeal the verdict but quietly decided not to. The Blahas, for their part, moved out of Hudson, and stand by their claims that Anderson bears responsibility.

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