KSTP's million-dollar mistake
Cameras rolling, the news crew pulled up to Susan Anderson's horse ranch on a cold March afternoon. KSTP reporter Jennifer Griswold charged up to the property with a producer and cameraman in tow. Griswold, a fit 31-year-old whose soft Midwestern features project a younger image on screen, had driven from KSTP's newsroom to Hudson, Wisconsin, in pursuit of a sensational story.
The station had received a tip on its hotline from a local woman, Cheryl Blaha, who shared a camera-ready tale of life and death. Nearly two weeks after sitting down with Blaha and her husband, Griswold barged unannounced into the Healing Arts Wellcare Center to report Anderson's side of the story.
"Are you Sue?" Griswold asked a tan, fit woman in her fifties, a Blackfeet and Dakota Native American.
"Yeah," Anderson answered, explaining that she was with a client.
"Sue," Griswold interrupted, "do you know that a woman almost died because of the advice you gave her?"
An attractive blonde with a nervous smile, Cheryl Blaha delivered her second child, Brock, in October 2006 after a difficult pregnancy. Birthing Brock taxed Blaha's body and left her with severe anxiety, panic attacks, and pain.
Her husband, Eric, a skinny software engineer at Medtronic, called Anderson, a practioner of holistic medicine, on a friend's recommendation. Anderson initially declined to see Cheryl, who had a reputation for being "hysterical," according to Anderson.
"She lived in this town for a long time, and I'm from this town," Anderson says. "We're fully aware of what each other's personalities are like."
Despite her initial refusal, Anderson softened when Eric told her that he was concerned Cheryl might "kill the baby."
Eric denies ever fearing for his child's safety, but no one disputes that Cheryl was in desperate need of help. She was crying constantly and threatening suicide. Anderson began seeing Cheryl in February 2007.
At their first meeting, Cheryl signed a form acknowledging, "I will always seek medical advice for medical treatment."
The waiver also says that "diagnosis or treatment of any kind of disease is outside the scope and practice of natural health."
Cheryl met with Anderson about once a month until her final appointment in July 2007. Anderson says she ended her sessions with Cheryl because she had taught Cheryl everything she could.
"If I teach you something I'm not going to reteach it to you," Anderson says. "Especially if I don't think you flunked."
At their last meeting, Anderson remembers, Cheryl gave the naturopath a big hug.
"Thank you for everything you did," Blaha said, according to Anderson. "Without this, I wouldn't have survived."
After KSTP's Mike Maybay hung up with Cheryl Blaha, he went to investigative news director Sam Zeff to discuss the story. Zeff directed Maybay to "get the medical records." Zeff later testified that he cannot recall anything else about the reporting, although he did remember snacks at investigative meetings.
Maybay, a producer at the station for 16 years, screened the story for broadcast. Cheryl claimed that Anderson diagnosed her with "baby blues" and told her to get off Klonopin, an anti-anxiety drug, because it was hard on her kidneys.
That allegedly sent Cheryl into a downward spiral. Her depression culminated in April 2007, around Easter, with her threatening to jump in front of a truck on Highway 35 in Hudson.
"I'm taking my life right now," Cheryl told her husband. "I can't do this anymore. You raise the kids. I can't do this. I can't live like this."
Eric claims to have called Anderson to ask for advice on how to deal with his suicidal wife. He alleges that Anderson told him to "let her go."
Instead, Eric went after Cheryl, who was pacing in their driveway.
Eric took his wife back inside the house and comforted her. She didn't get anywhere near the highway.
The couple continued seeing Anderson and kept the alleged suicide attempt to themselves, not mentioning it to the naturopath or Cheryl's regular doctor. Then, a year and a half later, the Blahas reached out to KSTP and shared the story of the alleged suicide attempt, which they blamed on Anderson.
Cheryl turned over 10 pages of medical documents beginning in February 2007 to the TV station in support of her story. But Cheryl's medical records didn't match her assertions.
During her interview with KSTP, Cheryl claimed that she went off Klonopin without telling her doctor. But the medical records showed that her physician, Dr. Mark Stannard, knew she was quitting the drug.
"She may decide to wean down her Klonopin as she deems necessary," reads one entry from Stannard, dated April 16, 2007.
KSTP also knew that Cheryl had a long history of psychiatric problems. She told the station that she had previously been institutionalized in a psychiatric ward and that she was suicidal before she ever met Susan Anderson.
After the station sat down with Cheryl, they didn't pursue a similar interview with Anderson. Instead, Griswold showed up at Anderson's ranch and accused her of causing a woman to "nearly die."
Anderson asked the station to bring Cheryl and get a waiver authorizing Anderson to discuss her former client. Griswold never returned. Instead, KSTP began airing promos.
"A self-proclaimed natural doctor seemed to have all the answers," the teaser began. "But did the doctor's orders almost turn deadly?... Now 5 Eyewitness News is asking the tough questions."
Anderson's receptionist, Janet Reppe, heard the promos and couldn't believe what was happening, so she called her boss.
Alarmed and confused, Anderson turned to a former neighbor, St. Paul attorney Bill Tilton, who was stunned by what he called "ambush journalism at its most scurrilous."
"KSTP decided that they had gotten the new, Midwestern Dr. Kevorkian or something, that this natural practitioner in Hudson was leading Minnesotans to their death," Tilton recalls. "It was ridiculous."
Tilton fired off a letter to the station alerting them that their story was incorrect. He chastised the station for failing to return to Anderson's ranch for an in-person interview.
In response to the letter, and just a couple of hours before the story aired on the 10 p.m. news, KSTP sat down with Anderson at Tilton's law office.
Tilton warned them that the story wasn't true, that Cheryl was mentally ill and had severe problems before she ever met Anderson. Anderson denied ever telling Cheryl to wean off the Klonopin.
None of that slowed KSTP down. The report pointed out that naturopathic medicine is unregulated in Wisconsin and centered on Cheryl's "story of pain, anxiety, naturopathy, and a suicide attempt."
Anderson didn't return home until 9:30 p.m., half an hour before the broadcast, and considered skipping the story. But she watched, and as she sat through the program, became emotional.
"The hype was more important than the truth," Anderson says. "I just cried and cried and cried."
Anderson fumed on her blog the next morning.
"The jackals at KSTP5 news tried to defame us with a story of near death by using a seriously mentally ill former client of ours," Anderson wrote.
A week later, she was still indignant about the report.
"No one has the right to walk into your life and make false claims and outright lies and fabrications to drum up sympathy for a self-proclaimed master victim, nor do the jackals of the news media have the right to publish it without even the most minimal foundation," Anderson blogged.
Tilton referred Anderson to his friend Pat Tierney, a veteran St. Paul attorney.
"It's impossible for a lawyer who represents a defamation victim to know whether it's a good case or not until we know what the TV station knew," Tierney says. "It's a guessing game. You have to size up clients, and it's a gut call which case you take."
Tierney decided to take Anderson's case on, believing that she had been wronged by KSTP. He began drafting a summons and complaint.
But before Tierney could serve the station or the Blahas, Anderson was served with a lawsuit herself.
Cheryl Blaha filed a complaint in St. Croix County alleging nine counts against Susan Anderson. She claimed invasion of privacy as a result of Anderson's blog posts and alleged that Anderson misrepresented herself as a "doctor."
Tierney thought it telling that the couple didn't sue for defamation.
"They would have had to prove that what Sue said wasn't true," Tierney says. "They couldn't prove that so they tried invasion of privacy."
Anderson fought the Blahas all the way to court in April 2011. Cheryl waived her right to a jury trial and Judge Eric Lundell heard testimony in the case for two days before ruling in Anderson's favor.
In his findings of fact, Lundell found that Cheryl "has a history of psychiatric and psychological problems beginning at age 12 and has received ongoing psychological and psychiatric treatment ever since she was a teenager."
He found that Anderson didn't de-prescribe Blaha's Klonopin or misrepresent herself as a doctor. Ominously for KSTP, Judge Lundell declared that the station "falsely accused Susan Anderson of being responsible for Cheryl Blaha's April 2007 suicide attempt."
It was a total victory for Anderson.
"Every single detail, every single count, every single issue," Anderson boasts. "We won it hands down."
As the Wisconsin lawsuit began winding down, Anderson went on the offensive, filing a lawsuit against KSTP and the Blahas alleging defamation. That meant another round of bruising depositions.
Cheryl Blaha refused to state her name for the record when Pat Tierney tried to take her deposition in Anderson's lawsuit against KSTP.
"Oh, come on," Blaha protested in her attorney's office.
It was the first time she had been face to face with Tierney since the Wisconsin lawsuit was adjudicated.
"We've been coming to this same party for years," Blaha said, calling the process "depressing."
Wound up, Blaha blew off her own attorney when he asked her to state her name.
"No," Blaha shot back. "You got it. Don't you got it? We've been meeting for years. You haven't got my name yet?"
Blaha bristled when Tierney threatened to take her before Dakota County Judge Richard Spicer for sanctions.
"Before you fluff your feathers too much, Tierney, I'm going to tell you why you won that case," Blaha spat.
She launched into a rambling speech claiming she was destined to lose her lawsuit against Susan Anderson due to a previous dispute she had in the court over a child custody case before Judge Lundell.
"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."
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.
Sitting in a modest office chair, Anderson says she sued KSTP not in hopes of receiving a big payday, but in pursuit of the truth. Even though KSTP offered her half a million dollars to settle on the eve of the trial, Anderson says, she wanted to present her side of the story.
"I wanted to stand up in open court and get my moment of, 'Listen, this isn't true and you can't just make stuff up for hype and you can't hurt people.'"
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