January 22nd, 2021

On Media

HuffPost, hotshot journo sued for falsely blaming black student for killing a Kennedy amid effort to bring down Kavanaugh

Erik Wemple

By Erik Wemple The Washington Post

Published August 27, 2019

  HuffPost, hotshot journo sued for falsely blaming black student for killing a Kennedy  amid effort to bring down Kavanaugh
Ashley Feinberg has gained journo-fame with astounding digital skills and reverence for very little. She formerly worked at Gawker and once declared, "Making people mad or uncomfortable is always a best case scenario."

That quote came in a gushing profile in Columbia Journalism Review.

Now it is surfacing in a less flattering forum - a defamation complaint filed by a Mississippi man mentioned in one of Feinberg's articles for HuffPost (she has since moved to Slate magazine) about the culture of Georgetown Preparatory School, the alma mater of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

"In a Columbia Journalism Review interview, Ms. Feinberg is described as a reporter who 'trolls for all the right reasons,' and she herself proclaims that 'making people mad or uncomfortable is always a best case scenario,'" reads the complaint.

The lawsuit arises from a Sept. 20, 2018, Feinberg article - "Former Student: Brett Kavanaugh's Prep School Party Scene Was A 'Free-For-All'" - presenting an interview with an anonymous graduate of Georgetown Prep who overlapped at the high school with Kavanaugh, who was then in the midst of a historic confirmation battle. The article surfaced just days after Christine Blasey Ford's sexual assault allegation against Kavanaugh was published in The Washington Post.

The Ford news touched off a scramble to contextualize life at Georgetown Prep, and Feinberg's piece took a broad look: "Drugs everywhere. Partying everywhere. Drinking - just whatever we wanted to do. It was unbelievable, off the rails. And that's just how it was," noted the former student.

Yet Feinberg got specific in reference to one incident: The April 1984 death of David Anthony Kennedy of a drug overdose - from cocaine, Demerol and Mellaril - in a Palm Beach, Florida, hotel suite. He was the 28-year-old son of Robert F. Kennedy. Here's how Feinberg phrased the connection between that tragedy and Georgetown Prep:

"Two Prep students - David's brother Doug, and his friend Derrick Evans - had helped David Kennedy score the coke. Doug, class of '86, had been at the center of Georgetown Prep social life, which the former student characterized as 'weekly frat-style parties with the neighboring sister schools and other private schools,' often hosted by Kennedy at his family's house in McLean, Virginia."

Evans is suing HuffPost and Feinberg over the characterization: "As a result of [HuffPost's and Feinberg's] knowing and reckless publications of outrageously false and defamatory statements, Mr. Evans has suffered significant injury to his reputation and emotional distress, for which he seeks compensatory damages, as well as punitive damages in an amount sufficient to deter such egregious conduct in the future," notes the complaint signed by attorney John Sneed of Wise Carter Child & Caraway, P.A., of Jackson, Mississippi.

According to the complaint, Evans was among the "only black students" at Georgetown Prep when he arrived from his native Mississippi on a full academic scholarship in 1982. Evans would go on to work as a history professor, lecturer and co-founder of a middle school for low-income kids in Boston. And as for allegedly helping to score cocaine for David Kennedy: "Had Ms. Feinberg or her editors at HuffPost undertaken even the most basic internet search of publicly available articles concerning the investigation into David Kennedy's death, they would have learned, if they did not already know, that Mr. Evans actively assisted law enforcement in identifying and prosecuting the individuals who actually sold the illegal narcotics to David Kennedy," argues the complaint.

Feinberg's formulation set off alarm bells at Fox News, where Douglas Kennedy works as a reporter. An executive at the network told HuffPost that the piece was "so deficient it should be removed in its entirety from HuffPost's website," according to the complaint.

HuffPost responded not by taking down the article but by removing Douglas Kennedy from culpability in a correction:

"This article previously stated incorrectly that Doug Kennedy was involved in helping his brother to purchase drugs in 1984. Kennedy was only sharing a room with Derrick Evans, who helped David purchase the drugs, according to an affidavit obtained by the New York Times. We regret the error."

So the HuffPost correction exculpated Douglas Kennedy but clung to its characterization of Evans's alleged involvement. The complaint calls it "the Defamatory Correction."

Now, about the affidavit obtained by the New York Times: A May 17, 1984, article on developments in the case summarizes the document, which details the arrests of two bellhops at the hotel on charges of selling cocaine. Key paragraphs:

"Mr. Evans was staying with Douglas Kennedy at the Brazilian Court in a room separate from that of David Kennedy. . . .

"The affidavit said the two men arrested today met David Kennedy at the Brazilian Court on or about April 20 and were asked by him to obtain some cocaine for him.

"The affidavit said Derrick Evans was present when the purchase of cocaine was discussed, when the two men "called a person concerning arranging a purchase," and on April 22 when David Kennedy was reported to have told Mr. Marchant and Mr. Dorr 'that the cocaine they had obtained for him was of good quality.'"

The New York Times article also stated that "much of the information in the state's affidavit linking Mr. Kennedy to the two men arrested today appeared to rely on statements obtained from Derrick Evans, a prep school classmate of Douglas Kennedy." According to the complaint, neither Feinberg nor her editors contacted Kennedy or Evans before publishing the article - nor was Evans contacted before publication of the correction.

The first correction, that is. After pressure from a lawyer retained by Kennedy, HuffPost published new language in a second correction (which can be found in the current version):

"CORRECTION: This article previously mischaracterized the involvement of individuals in a drug purchase. References to those individuals and the incident have been removed. We regret the error. Additionally, certain references by the former student to specific individuals have been removed to better reflect the intended purpose of the article: to provide a former student's general characterizations of the party culture."

Wrong, argues the Evans complaint. The original article and first correction "did not 'mischaracterize the involvement of individuals in a drug purchase' because neither Douglas Kennedy nor Derrick Evans had been involved in a drug purchase," argues the filing.

HuffPost's claim that the goal of providing "general characterizations of the party culture" at Georgetown Prep raises an obvious question: Why, then, did HuffPost include details about the nature of a drug transaction at a Florida hotel involving a 28-year-old man? The complaint claims that the publication was seeking to establish a "nexus between David Kennedy's death and Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination."

On May 3, Evans's lawyer sought a "written apology and a public retraction," though HuffPost has "refused" to comply with the request, according to the complaint.

Curious as to several aspects of HuffPost's handling of the article, the Erik Wemple Blog contacted the website. "We do not comment on pending litigation," said a spokesperson. Feinberg declined to comment on the record.

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