Journalist settles NewsGuild suit; No longer required to turn over source communications
Journalist Mike Elk settled his defamation suit against the NewsGuild on Dec. 1, 2023, and told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that he is no longer required to disclose his correspondence with former sources.
Elk, senior labor reporter and founder of the news site Payday Report, in June 2021 sued the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, the country’s largest journalists’ union, and other defendants for defamation, breach of contract, fraud and assault. He alleged that the union mishandled its response to his investigation into sexual harassment allegations against a NewsGuild leader.
The NewsGuild and other defendants have denied Elk’s claims.
As part of the suit, the NewsGuild and union officials Jon Schleuss, Fatima Hussein and Steve Cook had filed a motion to compel Elk to release the names of and his communications with the sources who told him about the harassment allegations. They also asked him to identify everyone with whom he had communicated about the suit at The New York Times, which published a piece about Elk’s investigation in December 2020.
The court granted the defendants’ motion in September 2023. Elk refused to comply, arguing that his communications were protected by the First Amendment and Pennsylvania Shield Law.
On Dec. 1, Elk signed a settlement agreement with the defendants in the suit, under which he said they are obligated to pay him $10,000.
Semafor’s Ben Smith reported that Elk credited the new leader of the Guild’s parent union, Communications Workers of America President Claude Cummings Jr., for “stepping in to resolve this matter.” Smith is a former New York Times columnist who had written about Elk’s investigation and was a target of one of the NewsGuild’s email requests.
Elk announced that he would be donating the full amount to Casa San Jose, an immigrant resources center in Pittsburgh, to be used to train young Latino reporters. He told the Tracker that the journalists trained would have the opportunity to publish work on Payday Report.
Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild, disputed Elk’s account of the settlement, explaining to the Tracker via email and in an online statement that the agreement required the NewsGuild to donate $10,000 to Casa San Jose, a nonprofit Elk selected, rather than giving it to Elk directly. Schleuss added, “It's up to Casa San Jose on how they will spend the money.”
Schleuss also told the Tracker that it was he who had proposed the $10,000 settlement to a nonprofit two weeks ago, adding that “Elk and Smith wouldn't be aware of the internal discussions.”
Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to include a statement from Jon Schleuss, NewsGuild’s president, which the Tracker received after the original post was published.
A Pennsylvania judge granted a motion on Sept. 14, 2023, to compel journalist Mike Elk to disclose his correspondence with former sources, according to court documents reviewed by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
The motion by the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America and union officials Jon Schleuss, Fatima Hussein and Steve Cook was made as part of Elk’s defamation suit against the NewsGuild, the Pittsburgh NewsGuild and four individual defendants.
Elk subsequently objected to the NewsGuild’s requests on Oct. 16, so a ruling by the judge now awaits, Poynter reported.
Elk, senior labor reporter and founder of the news site Payday Report, had sued the NewsGuild, the country’s largest journalists’ union, and other defendants in June 2021. He made claims against the NewsGuild for defamation, breach of contract, fraud and assault, alleging that the union mishandled its response to his investigation into sexual harassment allegations against then-president of the Pittsburgh NewsGuild Michael Fuoco. The NewsGuild and other defendants have denied Elk’s claims.
In September 2022, the NewsGuild sought information on Elk’s investigation methods, as well as for the names of and his communications with the sources who told him about the harassment allegations.
Elk was also asked to identify “every individual associated with the New York Times that you have communicated with regarding the lawsuit and the allegations” within his complaint (former New York Times columnist Ben Smith wrote about Elk’s investigation in December 2020).
After Elk refused to comply, the NewsGuild filed a motion to compel discovery responses from him, which the judge granted.
Elk argues in his responses to the NewsGuild that these communications are protected by the First Amendment and Pennsylvania Shield Law.
In an emailed response to the Tracker’s request for comment, Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild, said: “We have no inherent interest in obtaining Elk’s communications regarding the New York Times reporting, other than to defend against Elk’s baseless legal claims. We have not sought, and will not seek any discovery from the New York Times or from any of its current or former reporters.”
Elk told the Tracker he is scheduled to be deposed by the NewsGuild on Nov. 13.